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Campus Living Wage Manual
III. What is a Living Wage?
Choosing an hourly figure as a living wage is one of the most difficult things you will have to do. You'd like to be able to do careful research about what it costs to pay for housing, food, clothing, transportation and health care in your area, then calculate it for a family of four, add a little for savings and retirement, and convert it to an hourly wage. However, this figure, while perfectly reasonable, would probably not be politically feasible. The reality is that if you push for what is perceived as an exorbitant wage, though you may know it is not, your campaign will not be effective. Sadly, picking a wage will have more to do with the political climate and the strength of the coalition in your area than with the economic circumstances facing workers.
At the same time, though, you do not want to settle for too low a wage or the campaign will end up shortchanging the workers. This decision must be made in conjunction with workers and workers' unions, and should be discussed among your entire support base including students, faculty, and sympathetic administrators. Remember, workers should have the final say in determining the wage that will be fought for as they are the ones most affected by the campaign.
TARGET-SETTING IN PAST MUNICIPAL CAMPAIGNS
Living wage campaigns around the nation have used varying figures and methodologies for determining what a "living wage" is. In general, the amount that the living wage has been set at is related to poverty levels as defined by the federal government. One of the most commonly used benchmarks is the poverty level for a family of four, $16,700 annually. This gives a wage amount of roughly $8.00 to $8.50 an hour at forty hours a week.
There are several criticisms of using the federal poverty level as a benchmark. The federal poverty level is determined by calculating the minimum nutritional requirements for a family and then multiplying this figure by 3 to establish a yearly income. This assumes that families spend a third of their budget on food, which has been demonstrated to no longer be the case. Most families in fact spend only one-fifth or even one-sixth of their yearly budget on food. This more accurate estimate can be used to establish a better living wage. Using the assumption that a fifth of a family's budget goes to nutritional needs, a family of four requires an annual budget of $27,833 a year. Setting a living wage at $8.00 an hour is insufficient for a family of four with only one wage earner. To meet this level of income at $8.00 an hour, a family of four would need two wage earners, with one working full time and the other working over 20 hours a week.
Living wage campaigns have also used local research to base a living wage on the true cost of living for a particular area. Some activists have used federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) numbers that set a "fair market rent" for an area. The fair market rent assumes that no more than 30% of a person's gross income should be spent on housing. Living wage estimates are then adjusted accordingly.
In municipal living wage campaigns waged to date, the target wage has ranged between $7.49 to $10.75 in 1999 dollars, or between 93% and 134% of the federal federal poverty level for a family of four.
It is important to remember that a living wage campaign isn't just about a fair wage. It is also about benefits such as health care, paid leave, and other issues that affect a worker's well-being. Because of federal laws regarding health care, living wage campaigns cannot directly demand that health care be provided to workers. Instead, they can set a lower living wage for employers who provide health care benefits to their workers and a higher living wage that applies to employers who do not provide benefits. In addition to health benefits, some living wage campaigns have also demanded mandatory paid leave for employees.
SAMPLE LIVING WAGES
CHOOSING A CAMPUS LIVING WAGE
Selecting a wage is a delicate balancing game with many factors to consider:
If your town has a living wage ordinance that you think is acceptable, try pushing for that. It will make your campaign seem very reasonable and you can always say "If they can do it, why can't we?"
Make sure that the wage is high enough that a significant number of workers will benefit by a significant amount. This is crucial to maintaining worker support. If workers would only gain a small amount by the living wage, it could actually hurt them in the long run to get a small increase that administrators can point to and say: "The activists said this was enough so I guess you don't really need a raise." It's difficult, but you want to raise the floor without installing a ceiling.
What is the cost of living in your area? Contact the National Priorities Project and ask for their local "livable wage" for the area. Or call a legal services office, public housing authority or affordable housing advocacy group and ask about local "Fair Market Rent" set by HUD for various sizes of apartments. One way to roughly estimate local minimum cost of living is three times the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment.
Ironically, once you get through the political process of picking a wage, you may be forced to defend the wage against the common criticism that there's no such thing as a 'living wage'. In some ways people who make this argument are right. A living wage isn't a particular number that can just be checked by consulting a periodic table of wages; it has to be calculated by people, all of whom will have different standards. But we can't just give up because a living wage is not set in stone. The minimum wage is even more arbitrary. We know that a minimum wage cannot support even an individual in a healthy way, never mind someone with a child, so we have to make an effort to do better.
When pressed, you should also be able to justify your wage with simple calculations for the cost of an apartment, food, clothes, etc. Remember, the living wage has a real impact on the lives of the workers affected, giving them more take home income than they had before. It is an important first step in attaining economic justice for hard working employees at our nation's universities and colleges.
Remember that as a student, you will be supporting the workers on your campus launching a living wage campaign, and the specifics of what you are campaigning for will vary according to the situation on your campus.
The two schools that have mounted major campus living wage campaigns in the past few years, Harvard and Johns Hopkins, are both located in cities that have passed living wage ordinances for city employees. This has given their campaigns a lot of initial leverage.
If the town or city where your school is located has a living wage ordinance, you can use it as a centerpiece of your campaign.
Find out if the living wage for city employees is adequate. If the public employee unions feel it is, then consider choosing that figure for your campaign. Both Harvard and Johns Hopkins did this, and it allowed them to point to the living wage as a community standard that their school was violating.
Get community support. If there's a living wage ordinance, then chances are there is a group of activists in your community that fought for it. Or perhaps there's a campaign underway, or under consideration, by a community group or union. Find out, and get them involved with your campaign. If there are politicians or prominent city leaders that supported the living wage campaign, get them to come speak at your school or write letters of support. Get as many endorsements from the community as possible. If you have rallies, be sure to invite community members - they will swell your numbers and add legitimacy.
DEALING WITH COST OF LIVING ADJUSTMENTS
A "living wage" can't be just a static number. The cost of living always goes up, and any living wage language that you push for should include a way of recalculating the wage each year to account for this. A number is a good campaign slogan because it's a simple and accurate way to show that a living wage is reasonable, but when you actually make demands you must include a way to calculate yearly adjustments.
If you set the living wage figure to the current federal poverty level, the wage will increase every year. You can also index the living wage to a specific measurement, such as the Consumer Price Index, which would allow the wage to be adjusted as time passes. You can also index the living wage to increases in wages received by public workers in the municipality. This is a particularly helpful index because it links gains in the living wage to gains made by unions in bargaining for higher wages in the public sector, building support for both.
Alternatively, some coalitions have set up special public commissions to review increases in the cost of living and adjust the living wage accordingly.
ROUNDING OUT THE DEMANDS
Living wage campaigns are about more than just adding dollars to wages. Issues of health care, vacation time, and job security all come up in a living wage campaign. To address health benefits, campaigns often set two figures for living wages, one for a job that provides health benefits, and one for a job that doesn't. The wage for the job that does not provide health benefits is set at a higher level than the one for a job that does provide them. This is because federal law does not allow living wage ordinances to mandate health care provisions. Some living wage campaigns have also managed to win mandatory paid and unpaid leave from employers. Rounding out demands even further, some campaigns have taken fair labor relations into account when making their demands, which strengthens the ties between the living wage campaign and labor unions.
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