Editorial: Living Wage Campaign wrong for Northwestern

The Daily Northwestern Editorial Board

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The Living Wage Campaign has been around for more than a year, and though the campaign’s activities have been extensively covered by this newspaper, we have neither endorsed nor denounced it. But we have decided that it is time to take a stand.

The Daily’s editorial board has traditionally slanted to the left; just last week, we endorsed all Democratic candidates in the midterm elections. And we strongly believe in the spirit of social justice. It was with those ideals in mind that The Daily examined the LWC and met with its leaders.

After careful consideration, we have concluded that we cannot support the campaign, and we urge the administration not to do so either.

Specifically, we believe that the proposed “living wage” standard is arbitrary, that implementing a “living wage” could actually harm campus workers and that the group’s proposals for funding sources are illogical. We feel that the campaign relies on emotion to distract from the facts of the issue. And we feel that the campaign should focus on more effective ways to help campus workers.

The main reason that The Daily does not support the LWC is that we believe the economics behind it don’t add up. The number that the campaign cites as the desired living wage for a resident of Northern Cook County is $13.23 plus health care or $14.67 without health care. However, these estimates do not include public benefits for which lower-wage workers are eligible – such as the earned income tax credit, child tax credits, Medicaid and food stamps – or private sources of aid. Granting workers a “living wage” would disqualify them from many of these programs, drastically reducing the real effect of a wage increase and in some extreme cases, making their net income less than it would have been with the combination of lower wages and government benefits.

Campaign leaders list freeing workers from government assistance as a goal of the campaign. But if these government programs exist to close the gap between what workers earn and what they need, why is it better for Northwestern to take on this function? If we want to help our workers, wouldn’t it be better to devote resources to helping them increase their skills and earning potential?

Meanwhile, the campaign insists that increasing wages would not result in any firings or reductions in hiring, as traditionally macroeconomic theory would dictate. In a recent meeting with the editorial board, campaign leaders explained that raising wages at one institution is different than raising wages on a broader scale. They cited examples of hotel workers in Chicago and food service workers in Connecticut as two groups who got significantly higher wages and did not experience any firings.

But University President Morton Schapiro, a renowned labor economist who also happens to have a say in personnel decisions at NU, disagrees. He and other administrators have stated that if NU implemented a living wage, layoffs would be likely. While LWC members feel they can change this mindset, we feel that it is naive to think that anything other than financial facts will impact policy.

In addition, there are no examples of universities that have implemented living wages and not seen layoffs. Stanford, the only one of three living wage schools where numbers could be obtained, lost 200 subcontracted jobs.

It is illogical to believe that higher wages would not lead to fewer jobs or less job security. And if social justice is the objective of the campaign, protecting the jobs of the least skilled and lowest paid workers should be the top priority.

Equally illogical are the campaign’s ideas about where the money to pay for a living wage would come from. The group estimates the cost at $3.3 million to $4 million per year. LWC leaders vehemently assert it should not be funded through a tuition or student fee increase, but from eliminating “unnecessary” budget items. When the editorial board asked campaign leaders for examples of such expenses, they cited renovation of the presidential mansion, cross-country airplane travel of top administrators, and the multi-million dollar cost of endowing a professorship.

Those proposals demonstrate a complete ignorance about the realities of running a university. For example, while flying top administrators around the country might seem frivolous, it is an important part of the University’s ability to connect with donors who fund all of NU’s functions – from improving campus safety to providing financial aid to low-income students. And endowed professorships are essential to NU’s ability to attract and secure the best academics to teach and do research here. Endowing one less of them every single year would be unquestionably detrimental to the academic health of NU.

Those specific arguments are not to say that the University manages a perfect budget and there is no potentially available money. The point is that every decision involves tradeoffs and $4 million is a significant amount of money. The Daily doesn’t think that the University should prioritize allocating that money to a cause that is already being handled by the federal government.

The best thing that the LWC could do for campus workers is to reorient their goals toward more realistic ways of incorporating workers into our community. Last spring, the campaign achieved a significant victory when administrators agreed to provide workers with “community benefits,” including shuttle services, continuing education subsidies and access to the NU library. The Daily believes that the LWC members should pursue other services of this nature, like further continuing education opportunities and ESL classes for workers who have recently immigrated. Such programs would demonstrate that NU cares about workers’ well-being by providing them with the skills they need to earn higher wages – not just at NU but in any job.

The Daily respects the enthusiasm that hundreds of students have shown for this campaign and the countless hours of hard work that the organizers have devoted to it. Like them, we care deeply about the workers on this campus. For their benefit, it is time for the University to give the LWC a firm “no” and for the campaign to reorient their mission toward other, more effective methods of improving the lives of NU workers.

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