Supporters ‘rally, rant and rage’ for living wage

Vasiliki Mitrakos

“We will rally, rant and rage, till we see a living wage,” chanted about 300 students, faculty and community members as they gathered by the Arch to support living wages for Northwestern’s sub-contract workers. Bracing 27-degree weather, demonstrators gathered Wednesday afternoon, chanting and holding dozens of signs in support of establishing a living wage for NU workers. Just minutes after the rally began, protesters filled up nearly a block stretching from the Arch past Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St.

“A lot of people don’t realize we have contracted workers on campus who don’t have the same benefits with people who work directly on campus,” said Natalie Furlett, NU’s coordinator for student community service. “I’m really excited to see how many people came out and how many people are supporting our community as a whole.”

More than 1,300 students, faculty and community members signed a petition demonstrating concern for the establishment of living wages and benefits for NU sub-contract workers. According to the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Illinois, the living wage in Cook County is defined as $13.23 per hour without benefits.

Currently about 90 percent of all sub-contract workers in food and janitorial services at NU receive, on average, $9 to $11 per hour, according to the Living Wage Campaign. But according to University Spokesman Al Cubbage, only 50 of NU’s employees receive less than $13.23.

Implementing living wages would cost the University between $3.3 and 4 million annually, according to a statement from Cubbage. But many demonstrators said they felt this was a trivial amount compared to NU’s nearly $6 billion endowment. Cubbage, however, said funding from the living wage would need to come from room and board fees or tuition, which “cover the cost of operating Northwestern’s residence halls and dining services.” According to Cubbage this would cost each student living on campus an additional $400 to $500 per year.

“We think that at a school that has so many resources, we shouldn’t have workers living in poverty,” SESP junior Emily Petrie said. “The phrase that the University keeps using is, ‘This is not a priority,’ and having students come out on a day like this, because it is cold and gray and people have lots of homework, shows that this is a priority for the students.”

Despite the cold, a large crowd continued to rally toward University President Morton O. Schapiro’s office, 633 Clark St., half an hour into the rally, chanting “Schapiro, be a hero” along the way. While student groups have had several meetings with Schapiro since the fall, deliberation on the issue of living wages has been slow.

“When we can actually talk to President Schapiro about it, he seems fairly supportive, but when he leaves the room, we find a lot more push-back,” Weinberg freshman Will Bloom said. “Hopefully by bringing all these people to his doorstep, he’ll be forced to confront the issue.”

During the ASG Capital Senate meeting Wednesday night, Schapiro told students he supports social justice movements like the Living Wage Campaign, but NU’s sub-contract workers are unionized, which means they sacrifice wages in return for benefits like job security and pensions.

“We have 5,000 workers who work directly with NU, and they’re very well compensated,” he said. “The vast majority of people who work under the people with whom we contract are unionized. They’re doing collective bargaining over a lot of things.”

At the Rebecca Crown Plaza, demonstrators listened to several speakers representing the unionized workers on campus who receive minimum benefits and low wages. Rafael Marquez, lead cook at 1835 Hinman and union organizer, emphasized the importance of dignified wages and labor equality in his speech.

“I’m overwhelmed, and I feel proud of the students taking on the responsibility of bringing awareness to the administration and to take on the task at hand,” Marquez said. “I feel better inside that the students don’t overlook us just as help, and that they know and feel our needs of economic justice. I wanted to let them know that we don’t feel alone anymore or in a redundant struggle, that we are having progress with the help of the students.”

Campus efforts to establish living wages began in early November, and student organizations plan to continue the effort throughout Spring Quarter.

“People who work in the kitchens and in the dorms, they definitely deserve a living wage,” Sociology Prof. Aldon Morris said. “There is no reason why such an enlightened university would not be aware of what it means for a family to live on $20,000. The administrators and the professors would never even consider or think about living at that level.”

After the speeches, students began to disperse, but several supporters continued to chant loudly and dance while the song “Party in the U.S.A.” played in the background.

“We are really amazed and excited that hundreds of students came out in the freezing cold to show that they demand that Northwestern, our university that we are so proud of, pay our workers a living wage and do it now,” said Weinberg junior Adam Yalowitz, a Living Wage Campaign coordinator. “We’re not going to accept injustice, and we will continue fighting.”[email protected]

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story has been modified.

Supporters of the living wage campaign marched from the Arch to the Rebecca Crown Center Wednesday.