For the last four years, I’ve watched as tireless student activists made progress every year on financial aid. But as I barrel towards graduation, I’m forced to think of where the movement goes from here.
If I may, I hope future activists will consider this: There’s no reason why undergraduate workers shouldn’t have a $15 per hour minimum wage and a legally recognized union.
Yes, you read that right. Not graduate workers. Undergraduates.
The time for a campus minimum wage hike is long overdue. Consider our own labor history: In 2001, Yale increased the campus minimum wage to $9 per hour. By 2005, it was $10. In 2006, we were at $10.90. We got to $11.30 by 2007 and $11.50 by 2009. For a while, it seemed we would continue making progress each year. But ever since we hit $12, progress has moved at a glacial pace. We are frozen at just $12.25 with little indication from the Yale Corporation overlords that things will ever change.
So it’s time students joined a much larger movement toward a universal $15 minimum wage, and we can start here on campus. California already has plans to raise its statewide minimum wage to $15, and the state of New York will soon follow suit. In fact, New York University recently announced it will not wait on state legislation and will instead guarantee its students a $15 minimum wage by 2018.
Yale can and should do the same to make up for its regressive student work requirements. If Yale is not going to make meaningful progress on financial aid by eliminating the student income contribution (or what I’ve come to call the “low-income student surcharge” due to its only applying to students who weren’t born into wealth), then the least administrators can do is raise the minimum wage.
For employers on campus, the burden of that increase would be mitigated by the Provost’s Office’s 50-50 split program, which reimburses an employer for half of a student’s wage up to $15 an hour if the student is on financial aid. This program, of course, has its flaws. A recent change in rules — where the Provost’s Office will suddenly revoke their reimbursement once a student earns one penny over a $15 hourly wage — has, in effect, artificially capped student wages at $15 an hour. This economically nonsensical change should be reversed altogether, but at the very least the cap should be raised to accommodate for a higher minimum wage.
Unfortunately, such a movement will be difficult to get off the ground. Student workers are usually only here for four years, and administrators are hoping we will be so caught up in classes, jobs and extracurriculars that we will both forget our own labor history and not have time to organize a movement around those issues. It’s truly a shame. If only there were some sort of legally recognized negotiating forum in which professional staff with institutional memory that four-year students do not possess could negotiate on behalf of students on equal footing with the Yale Corporation.
Ah, yes. A union.
Corporate-backed conservatives like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner have been waging a full-on war on workers’ rights across the country, and unfortunately it seems to be working. Union density is now at record lows in this country, despicably named “right-to-work” union-busting laws have crept into the Rust Belt, and many in the labor movement have been reeling to figure out how to proceed.
Yale can be on the right side of history here and help reduce campus socioeconomic inequality. By allowing its undergraduates to form a legally recognized union, Yale can guarantee its workers their right to collectively bargain in the same way Locals 34 and 35 currently allow full-time staff to bargain. Such a mechanism would allow student workers the ability to negotiate more fairly with the administration on workplace reforms like fair scheduling, paid sick days and, yes a higher campus minimum wage — all without low-income students and students of color having to bear the emotional and financial burden of going out to march for our rights every single time we want the administration to pay attention.
So when Yale inevitably loses its fight against recognition of the graduate workers’ union, Local 33, undergraduates should consider formally launching our own union to protect and expand access to low-income students across the world.
Unfortunately, I am rapidly running out of time to organize around these issues. But Yale College Council elections are coming up, and I hope, in planting this seed, that we can begin the long work of building towards $15 and a union for all undergraduate workers.
It’s time for unapologetic boldness in the student movement to reduce campus economic inequality.
Tyler Blackmon is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .