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Living Wage Campaign stages student protest

Mackenzie Clark
Editor in Chief

Approximately 200 students lined the halls in the Scot Center at 7:30 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 26 to peacefully protest in solidarity with the Living Wage Campaign (LWC) as members of the Board of Trustees arrived for their meeting in the Governance Room.

“I want to remind you of what a living wage is: a living wage is enough to pay for basic necessities and nothing else. It is only enough to survive,” Robyn Newcomb ’20, co-president of the LWC, read in her opening statement at the beginning of the protest, in reference to the fact that many staff members have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet for their families.

As students arrived, members of the LWC wrote “$14.08” on the hand of each protester to mark that they had checked in and read the code of conduct that was posted by the LWC. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator and local census data, a living wage in Wayne County, Ohio in 2018 is $14.08 an hour. The College’s current minimum is $11 an hour which equates to less than $23,000 annually.

At the protest, students held signs stating why they support a living wage, with some stating quotes from low-wage workers at the College, anonymously sharing their stories and frustrations.

“It takes everything away; it’s not right. I’m constantly working. I have to,” read one of the signs. “I’m a mother of three — I only see my kids maybe eight hours a week. I’ll work 14-21 days in a row just to make enough to get by. That’s why it’s not enough. You shouldn’t have to work weekends to live.”

“You need to practice what you preach,” read another. “You know, they preach all about community and stuff, and it’s not true! It’s all a bunch of lies. For the higher up people, maybe, yeah. And then you have all of us lower-end workers that get treated like doormats. This campus would fall apart without all of us lower workers, and it’s starting to show.”

Members of the Board of Trustees were instructed by Chair Don Frederico to arrive early to the meeting to engage with the student protesters.

Newcomb, in her opening statement, said, “I want you to speak from your heart when they ask you why you’re here today, and I want you to keep those words you tell them in your heart after you leave this room — I want you to think about how you can continue to fight for them and live for them after you’ve left this building,”

As the Trustees arrived for the meeting, many walked down the hall lined with students to read signs and speak with protesters. Some Trustees entered the Scot Center through doors that lead directly to the Governance Room, bypassing the protest entirely, while other Trustees entered near the Governance Room and walked past the part of the protest that was directly outside of the meeting.

“I would say overall the Trustees were kind to the protestors, though I saw two or so [Trustees] physically but not forcibly move some students near me aside,” said student protester, Robin Perry ’20. “It wasn’t aggressive, but they didn’t even make eye contact with the students or say ‘excuse me.’”

“I was incredibly impressed by the behavior of the students,” added Perry. “They were all incredibly respectful and peaceful and graciously answered questions from representatives.”

“To see trustees just walk through the door that bypassed the whole line of students and then pushing past students so they didn’t have to see even the five people’s signs that they would have had to walk past was just really cowardly and disappointing to me,” said Newcomb. “I did appreciate the people -— notably Jamie Christiensen, Jilliene Johnson and Don Frederico — who came over and looked at us, but I didn’t get very many questions. I would have liked to see more care and investment from these people that say they are making decisions for the betterment of the students.”

Newcomb noted that she was shocked and upset by the lack of staff representatives at the protest.

“However, one matter I should raise is that while it is clearly articulated in the employee right to dissent that every staff member has the right to be here today, I am deeply, deeply disappointed to tell you that despite continuous pressing, the school did not communicate that right to our staff as the LWC requested. Because of that, I cannot count on both hands how many workers I personally know who said they wanted to be here but that it wasn’t worth the risk,” said Newcomb in her opening statement. “That makes me, frankly, enraged, and it should be a wake-up call to everyone in this room that a sad and shameful reality of our campus is that for some among our staff this campus is steeped in a culture of fear. And we need to continuously do a better job of listening.”

Newcomb stated that, on Tuesday, Oct. 23, it came to her attention that staff members were told they were not allowed to be involved in the protest. Newcomb emailed President Sarah Bolton and Marcia Beasley, associate vice president of human resources, as well as Dean of Students Scott Brown and Executive Assistant to the President’s Office Sally Whitman, to confirm that supervisors and staff were aware of the right to dissent.

“The students from the Living Wage Campaign brought that allegation to our attention on Tuesday afternoon, and it was shared, along with our policy statement on the rights of all members of the campus community to speak freely and participate in public meetings, with all members of cabinet, who were asked to remind supervisors that staff must have the right to participate in such events,” said Beasley to the Voice. “The policy was also shared directly with department heads of Dining, Custodial, Grounds and other administrative/service departments, as well as with the Staff Committee, all of whom were reminded to ensure that supervisors were aware of the policy.”

Newcomb requested that Beasley ensure that staff, in addition to the supervisors, were informed of their right to participate. The morning of Thursday, Oct. 24, the day before the protest, Newcomb reached out to staff members who confirmed that they had still not heard anything from their supervisors regarding the protest.

“I want to make it very clear that while I am vocal, I am not the voice of the staff: no one is the voice of the staff except the staff, and even then they are all individuals and not a single entity. So if you want to know their perspective, do not ask me; ask them,” Newcomb emphasized in her opening statement on Friday morning.

Plans for this event started months ago in April of 2018. Before the protest was announced to the campus community, the LWC personally met with President Bolton to discuss the conditions of the protest and their expectations. After that, they announced the protest to the Board of Trustees, and then to the student body two weeks before the protest took place. The LWC petition was tabled in Lowry, circulated around campus and maintained an active online presence through social media. As of press time, the petition that circulated both online and around campus had over 1,200 signatures.

At an open panel discussion on Monday, Oct. 22 and at the Student Development meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 24, the LWC presented their four key arguments in favor of a living wage with anonymous quotes from staff members supporting those arguments and their cost analysis.

The four arguments the LWC presented were: 1) that a living wage is a moral imperative, because it is a human right; 2) that a living wage is a practical necessity, because of the labor shortage; 3) that a living wage can help bridge our community relations, because poverty wages reflect hypocritically on the reputation of the school and 4) that a living wage is mandated by the College’s purported collegiate values of justice and civic responsibility.

LWC Treasurer Alex Kania ’19 also updated the cost analysis originally compiled by earlier generations of  math and economics majors from the LWC. The analysis breaks down five scenarios of wage-compression with the limited data to which students had access for calculating the cost of paying living wages. Kania explained wage compression as, “increases to hourly wages of lower-wage staff without corresponding increases to wages of higher-wage staff; it’s a reduction in wage variance.” He added that the main issue with wage compression is that “it could potentially make higher-wage staff feel less valued.”

“So, even though we don’t think students should have had to, we did calculate the money,” said Newcomb at the Student Development meeting. “We are proposing that the College fundraises to promote an endowment for a living wage. We have endowments for faculty, for students, for lectures and even for trees, but none for our workers. An endowment of at most $29 million at maturity would pay for living wages for every year in the future, forever.”

This is not the first time that the LWC has protested during a Trustees meeting, although none of the founding members of the LWC are still at the College.

“I think this speaks to the fact that this is not a group of individuals doing this. It’s a manifestation of the beliefs of the student body,” said Newcomb.

Alumnus Stephen Lumetta was a part of the LWC when it started in January of 2015, and he served on its board during his time at Wooster. Lumetta was involved in the original protest in the spring of 2016. As a result of that protest, the College raised wages from the state minimum wage to $11 an hour, even though the LWC was protesting for a $15 an hour wage. After that protest, the Trustees requested more fact-based information and the LWC spent the following years developing their cost analysis. This work was presented at the student development meeting in the spring of 2018. They were met with no response from the Trustees.

“I think the current group of LWC students is doing a phenomenal job,” said Lumetta. “They have done the solid economic analysis to show what a living wage is and how the College can achieve it while avoiding too much wage compression. The current group of students has been holding the College’s leadership accountable for not living up to the values they profess to hold.”

“The College is invested in the long-term well-being of each member of our campus community, and committed to providing equitable compensation — both wages and benefits — to all staff,” said Bolton to the Voice. “For full-time employees, those benefits include health care, paid vacation and sick time, generous College contributions to a retirement plan and tuition remission for both the staff members themselves and their children. Our goal is to offer a compensation package that will continue to attract and retain good people, and compensate them fairly, while working responsibly within the resources we have.”

As of press time, the LWC had not heard about the outcome of the Trustees’ discussions last weekend. Looking forward, the LWC plans to continue to actively advocate for living wages until they achieve their goal.

“That’s the thing — the Living Wage Campaign isn’t going away,” read a closing statement that Claire Wineman ’21, a board member of the LWC, shared at the end of the protest. “Those of us who helped organize this event today are only another iteration of generations of Wooster students who have dedicated their time, energy and passion to this issue. Today is not the end of anything, but it’s really a beginning in another part of a movement that continually remains unstoppable, and will not rest as long as these issues affect our campus.”

(Photo by Saeed Husain)

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