Living wage campaign sends heartfelt cards

Alexandra Finkel

University President Morton O. Schapiro will receive more than 45 Valentine’s Day cards this Thursday.

The cards are the Northwestern Living Wage Campaign’s newest effort to raise awareness on the issue.

“We wanted to make it a broader public discussion,” campaign member Adam Yalowitz said. “We want to get the president back involved in the issue because we know it’s something he cares about.”

Living wage is defined as the hourly payment needed to support a family. In Cook County, this amounts to $13.23 per hour, according to research done by the Northwestern Community Development Corps. NU food service and janitorial employees are currently paid between $9 and $11, said Matthew Fischler, another campaign member.

Formed in Fall Quarter, the campaign has met with administration several times and circulated a petition, which has garnered more than 1,200 signatures.

“Entry-level cashiers and utility workers with one dependent are paid below the poverty line,” said Fischler, a Communication senior. “We didn’t think that was acceptable. If NU truly wants to have an inclusive community, workers should be included in that.”

The organization estimates an implementation of a living wage would cost the University an additional $2 to $5 million per year.

William Banis, vice president for student affairs, said students don’t fully understand the implications of a living wage.

“There’s a lot of sympathy for the whole issue,” Banis said. “Most of us support the concept and want to do what we can. But there are harsh realities that all of us have to face.”

The University contracts outside organizations like Sodexo to hire and pay food service and janitorial workers.

“We need to make a distinction between our employees and Sodexo employees,” he said.

But Yalowitz said it’s ridiculous not to consider campus workers part of the NU community.

“It’s this myth of subcontracting that leads to substandard working conditions across the country and on our campus,” the Weinberg junior said. “Its a myth and lie to say these people don’t work at NU when they’re making our sandwiches and cleaning our buildings.”

Still food services and housing are self-supporting enterprises, meaning they are supported by student fees rather than tuition or the endowment, Banis said.

If contractors choose to increase wages, an increase in cost means an increase in student fees, said Banis, who added the University is trying to contain tuition and room and board costs.

The University also faces a troubled fiscal environment.

“In my opinion, the timing couldn’t be worse,” Banis said. “Our endowment is down. We went through budget cuts last year. Everyone’s tightening their belt trying to contain costs.”After falling $1.8 billion from its $7.4 billion peak in April 2008, NU’s endowment has since rebounded and currently stands at about $6 billion.

Banis said there are trade-offs to the Living Wage Campaign’s goals.

“Education and research are the drivers for NU,” he said. “Then come quality of student life and student satisfaction. There are choices to make because we have a limited supply of money.”

The University will work to make improvements incrementally, Banis said.

“We’ll do what we can this year and as the economy gets better, we’ll keep chipping away at it,” he said. “We don’t make dramatic changes in this kind of financial environment.”[email protected]