In defense of the Living Wage Campaign

This is a response to this column on The Daily Northwestern. Thanks to Tyler Zimmer and N____ S_______ for their helpful comments.

Last week, Ryan Fazio wrote a column for the Daily criticizing the Living Wage Campaign. Now that the dust has settled and the workers have won back their wages, I finally have the time to respond. I could have written an impassioned, emotional reply, filled with real stories of Sodexo workers that strive to make a living with their meager wages. I could have told the story of the Sargent server that had to live in their car because she could no longer afford her rent, I could have talked about all the workers that have kids to support, I could have talked about how difficult it is for them to do their jobs in their under-staffed kitchens. But that would have been too easy, and it wouldn’t have convinced Mr. Fazio–economists don’t deal with emotions, they deal with “reality”, as he so eloquently phrased it. So I write my argument in objective terms that Mr. Fazio will understand.

For those who are not aware of what happened, a couple of weeks ago Sodexo threatened to cut the work hours of workers from certain dining halls, such as Allison, Hinman, and Willard. Many workers were already struggling, so they could not have handled such a reduction. To prevent this from happening, the Living Wage Campaign organized a large-scale protest on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Thankfully, over the last weekend Sodexo backed down, and the University’s celebrations could go on undisrupted.

Mr. Fazio’s entire article frames the issue as if poor Sodexo were just trying to enforce the market dictated wage, and the pesky students and workers kept interfering. This is either wilful ignorance or deliberate misrepresentation of the facts on the author’s part. When Sodexo cuts wages, or reduces hours, or lays off workers, their primary motivation is not to make sure that what they pay their employees matches market prices, but to increase their profits in order to maximize shareholder value. Sure, the market value of labor matters, but only insofar as it ensures that the workers have no better alternatives, leaving them without much bargaining power.

He goes on to accuse the Living Wage Campaign of using “coercion” to achieve its goals. And I suppose I’m willing to admit that protesting is a kind of coercion. However, it’s very naïve of him to think that Sodexo actions don’t also qualify as coercion. They are in fact much more coercive. The most a student protest can do to affect Sodexo is to marginally reduce their profits. The horror! Some poor shareholder in New York won’t be able to buy a new yacht to replace the one he bought last year. On the other hand, even a marginal cut in a worker’s salary might be enough to leave him out of his apartment, or leave his family without food at the end of the month. I imagine in Mr. Fazio’s head, the difference lies in that the students need to initiate their coercion (start a protest) while Sodexo need only cease doing what they were doing (paying their employees). So a student protest is akin to giving Sodexo a nudge, maybe even a mild push; while cutting hours is akin to letting go of the rope that was keeping the workers from falling off a cliff. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which is more coercive.

The author’s conspiracy theory about the Daily’s “left-leaning” editorial board really does not help his point. Neither does his straw man argument, in which he asks “What makes the $13.23 living wage a moral imperative, but $13.22 an egregious violation of human rights?” It is pretty obvious to anyone not trying to ridicule the opponents’ argument that the exact amount is not important, so long as the workers can make a living on their wages.

Mr. Fazio’s strongest point is probably the last: NU is not an isolated economy. Since elsewhere in Evanston wages are lower, higher wages for NU workers means unskilled workers are less likely to get a job here. However, the solution to this problem is not to ensure that our lovely staff suffers just as much as everyone else, but to bring everyone else up to the same level. This is the message that has resonated over the past few months with the Occupy Wall Street movement, from New York City to right here at OccupyNU. If the economy is such that many people who work a full-time job can’t afford to make a living while a small group of people can spend their spring break in the French Riviera, there is something wrong with our wealth distribution

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to make a lot of money. But we must recognize that Sodexo and the 1% have an advantageous bargaining position because of their money. Sodexo can use this advantageous position to cut the workers salaries with little fear of repercussion; the 1% can use their money to lobby congress to pass bills that benefit them, at the expense of the rest of us. The only thing we have in our favor is our superiority in numbers, so it is necessary to organize and fight back: this is the purpose of the Living Wage Campaign and the Occupy movement, to protect the interests of the 99%. Mr. Fazio made it very clear in his article that he sides with Sodexo and the 1%. On what side are you on?