The fight for $15 at Washington University and beyond, explained

| Senior News Editor
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Graphic by Josh Zucker

The Washington University Graduate Workers Union is currently occupying Brookings Quadrangle in its latest protest for a $15 an hour minimum wage and free subsidized child care for all University employees.

Participants have stated that they won’t leave until the University administration agrees to their demands. Here’s what their demands mean.

Current employee benefits
The University makes a distinction between its employees and contractors, which Executive Vice Chancellor for Administration Henry Webber says is common in their industry.

“We define contractors as people who work here all day, every day. There are about six or seven hundred of them at the University. It doesn’t include the person who comes once every two weeks and checks the elevators, but it includes people who clean, who do dining. It’s a relatively small percentage of the total university workforce, but it’s not a small number of people, because there are almost 16,000 full time employees,” Webber said. “That’s on all campuses. We have had for many years, a number of years, a minimum wage for all of our employees, and we’ve had a minimum wage for all of our contractors that is set with a one-year lag.”

According to Webber, the University’s minimum wage will be $12.65 an hour as of July 1, 2019. In Missouri, the current minimum wage is $8.60 an hour.

“It will be $12.20 for our contract employees [which include cleaning and dining service workers], and unless we do something different than we’ve done in the last ten years, the contract number will be $12.65 on July 1, 2020. It’s a one-year lag system,” Webber said. “That puts us not at the absolute top, but very close to the absolute top for employers in the St. Louis region.”

Webber said that the University also provides a “generous” and “unusual” benefits package, which includes tuition reimbursement programs for employees and contractors through University College and other institutions.

“We provide full tuition reimbursement at University College for all of our employees, and we do have a program for contractors. So to get a BA [Bachelor of Arts] through University College, it’s 100% funded. If you go to Northwestern, [they provide] 40% tuition reimbursement,” Webber said. “If you go to [any] University, we provide tuition reimbursement up to 40% of Wash. U.’s [tuition] level. At the University of Missouri, for example, it pays for 100% of tuition, if you’re in-state. It’s 40% of $45,000 or something like that, so we’ll pay up to $18,000 toward college tuition. For lots of people it’s free, because if you go to a public institution, and in fact most people who take advantage of this policy go to public universities in Missouri and Illinois.”

Washington University also provides a housing assistance program, parental leave and caregiver leave for its employees.

“We provide a housing assistance program for our employees, where you get up $8,500 forgivable as a five-year loan to help buy a house in many residences around here,” Webber said. “Not only do we provide parental leave for either six or eight weeks, we also provide caregiver leave for any member of your immediate family under any circumstance. It’s basically a funded FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act] program. FMLA is the law, but we fund it for four weeks of a year.”

According to Webber, the modal employee at the University is a 47-year-old woman, meaning that parental leave has a “very low utility on average” for many of the University’s employees.

“On the other hand, many of those people are taking care of older parents. That’s a major issue in their lives,” Webber said. “We basically said, what if we skipped a second, what if we did a piece of it that was parental leave, and what if we did a piece of it that’s caregiver leave, that can be used for parents, [and] can be used in a different kind of way. It’s much newer, it’s much less experienced, it took people a long time to get their head around that. It took us a year and a half to get this done.”

According to Webber, the University’s benefits are “dramatically better” than those required by law and changing the minimum wage would require contemplation into the specific economics given the benefits that the University currently offers.

“We’re doing [caregiver and parental leave benefits], because we’re a community. Some of this is about how a community decides to make these decisions, and for the community to make these decisions, it requires being pretty thoughtful about them and understanding the trade-offs that we should’ve made,” Webber said. “Should we have done more on parental leave, and not on caregiver leave? I can give you the equation of the economics. I can make the numbers easy. I think we’ve got it right, but it’s not obvious. You’re going to have to think through it, you’re going to have to consult people and you’re going to have to decide the values of the institution.”

“There certainly is no other employer in St. Louis who provides the combination of homeowner assistance, caregiver and parental leave assistance and tuition remission that we provide,” Webber said.

The question of a living wage
A living wage is the minimum wage necessary to afford a worker a decent standard of living. Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a living wage calculator which calculates the living wage required to support 12 different types of families across different regions. According to the calculator, the living wage is $15.45 for a family with two adults and two children in St. Louis County.

“If we’re talking about living wages, there’s no way to arrive at a single living wage that would work for everyone across the U.S. just because cost of living differences vary so dramatically,” Associate Professor of Sociology Jake Rosenfeld, an expert on labor force and union issues, said. “So a $15 minimum wage for a full time worker would translate to little over $30,000 a year, that might count for a living wage in a place like St. Louis, where it might not describe a current reality in a more high cost locale like San Francisco or Seattle… The living wage movement has done a good job of trying to calculate what makes most sense for the particularities of the area in which the effort is focused.”

According to co-chair of WUGWU’s executive committee and Ph.D. candidate Grace Ward, the current University minimum wage is not enough for workers to support themselves.

“You hear it from housekeepers all the time. You hear it from grad workers. People are going into major debt for things like medical care,” Ward said. “People are not able to keep up with bills. We have housekeepers who work full time who’ve gotten eviction notices and haven’t been able to keep up with rent while again being people who are doing full weeks.”

Ward said that increasing the wage to $15 will have a big impact on University workers.

“If you give people a wage that allows them to live with dignity and live with security and plan and be able to feel secure in starting a family or continuing to raise their family or whatever and to save, that is the kind of community we want to be a part of, versus the kind of community where we have people who are really dedicating a lot of time and energy to this university and going into debt and not able to achieve some of the basic life things they should be able to achieve,” Ward said.

Webber said that he doesn’t accept the identification of $15/hour as a living wage.

“I think that maybe $15 is the right answer–I’m not saying it’s not, over time, but why $15 rather than $14.75? How do you figure the benefits package into that? Frankly, we could pay people a lot more money if we didn’t give everybody health insurance, and that would be a terrible thing to do, right?” Webber said. “We could pay more money if we didn’t give everyone a retirement plan; that would be a terrible thing to do. One of the reasons why people want to work here and stay here is because we don’t treat our lower-paid workers, hourly workers without benefits. I reject the notion of living wages.”

Rosenfeld said non-wage benefits should be taken into account when calculating wages.

“So that should always be factored in calculations of what really constitutes a ‘living wage’,” Rosenfeld said. “I’m not here to take a stand on whether $15 an hour is the exact right amount, that’s for the relative parties to negotiate. I don’t have access to the University financial data, which is what you really need to work through these calculations, but we know it’s not an outrageous amount because we’ve seen organizations, municipalities and now certain states set their minimum wage at $15 an hour.”

Rosenfeld said increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour is an opportunity for Washington University.

“This is a way to showcase itself like a model employer,” Rosenfeld said. “Its way of treating its workers sends a broader message about the University’s values, both to peer institutions, kind of other selective colleges and universities, but also to other employers in the community,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s a way to say, ‘Hey look, we really value and take care of the people upon which the day-to-day operations of this University depend.’”

Beyond Washington University
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and has not increased since 2009. Fast food workers in New York City launched a global movement dedicated to demanding a $15 minimum wage, Fight for $15, in 2012. 15 Now, another movement dedicated to a $15 minimum wage, launched in Seattle in 2014.

“[15 Now is] a movement that started in a really small town outside of Seattle…and then spread like wildfire across the country. First in Seattle the city, California, New York and many other places now,” Rosenfeld said. “I think it’s caught on in a particular moment with an improving economy so that organizations are better able to afford higher labor costs, and it’s caught on with a workforce that had, kind of, put up with stagnant pay for a long time.”

Since then, California, Massachusetts, New York, the District of Columbia and New Jersey have all approved a $15 minimum wage. These states represent around 21% of the US workforce.

Graduate students at other universities, including Loyola University in Chicago, have also been unionizing and protesting for $15 an hour. Movements at Duke University and Emory University have met with recent successes, with both universities announcing they’ll be increasing minimum graduate assistant stipends to $31,000 a year.

The United States House Committee on Education and Labor introduced a bill to increase the federal minimum wage Jan. 17. The bill, named the Raise the Wage Act, would increase the federal minimum wage to $8.55 this year and increase it over the next five years until it reaches $15 in 2024. The bill had its first hearing February 7.

Rosenfeld said that he does not believe the Raise the Wage Act will become law at this time.

“I think you have a hostile Senate and an executive branch that shows no interest in moving on that type of legislation. Also there’s some dissention within the Democratic ranks…There are many Democrats who are uneasy with it, especially Democrats who represent low-cost locales where they are making the case, as I explained earlier, that $15 may work in Manhattan, may work in Seattle, but doesn’t work in say rural Iowa,” Rosenfeld said. “So those kinds of issues haven’t quite been worked out yet. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we saw a national minimum wage increase in the coming years should power flip in the White House and the Senate, but whether it gets to $15 remains to be seen.”

What happens next
WUGWU and its supporters have repeatedly said they will continue to occupy Brookings until the University administration agrees to raise the University’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“We do think [Occupy Brookings] will be effective; we really do,” Ward said. “Direct action works. It’s worked at this university before…So we believe this is the way to get Chancellor Martin and the rest of his administrative team to decide to pay workers more at this university. And we’re going to stay here until they do, and this is our one strategy which we think will work.”

Rosenfeld said the institutional machinery behind the local Fight for $15 movements have boosted their success.

“This is a kind of multi-year effort now, kind of underwritten and with key organizing expertise provided by labor unions, that has already proven really successful in a lot of places,” Rosenfeld said. “Whether it proves successful here at Washington University obviously remains to be seen.”

Webber said that rushing a decision from the University will not lead to the best outcome due to the costs involved. According to Webber, the University will “have responded on a major policy by the end of July.”

“We’re going to respond, we’re going to make a decision, we’re going to let people know,” Webber said. “It’s not like we’re waiting years, but we do need enough period of time to go through that kind of reflective process, including, frankly, I think one criteria is that if we put more resources into this, what do we put less resources into? You have to address that question.”

Additional reporting by Elena Quinones

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