Enough of everybody else. What do you think about the living wage?
Below, I've collected some of my own thoughts on three common themes from the project: the difference between organizing and advocacy; the limits of "rational dialogue"; and the personally transformative power of living wage activism.
The thoughts here aren't extensive, but hopefully will give some feel of the non-economic issues involved in the campaign.
Organizing versus advocacy. Nearly every activist mentioned the importance of coalition building to the success of living wage campaigns. However, many activist found a deeper purpose in community organizing: to give the least-advantaged a lasting voice and power in the decisions of cities and universities. What Matthew Jerzyk calls "old-school organizing" represents a return to the ideals of more democratic control over local policies.
Instead of speaking for employees, activists tried to ensure employees had their own voice, and the power to make others listen.
When researchers, the media, or even activists focus only on the living wage as a policy proposal, the deeper purpose and goals are missed. The deeper purpose is the long-term enablement of low-wage employees to speak and bargain for themselves. Advocacy alone cannot accomplish these larger goals of empowerment.
The limits of rational dialogue. In defending their decision to sit-in during the spring of 2001, Harvard activists took pains to explain that no other option remained: that "rational dialogue" had failed to produce the changes they wanted.
More broadly, all activists eventually concluded that reasoned discourse couldn't work alone. The living wage campaign disputes pitted individuals with very different levels of power: students versus universities, employees versus employers, community organizations versus city legislatures. In each of these relationships, formidable power differences remained, and no ethical or economic argument alone could convince the powerful to heed the requests of the less powerful.
The myth of effective “rational dialogue” was a myth all activists—from Swarthmore to Harvard—abandoned during the course of their living wage campaigns.
Transformation and the Future. Finally, many students described the living wage campaign as a transformative experience. Activists in the living wage campaigns learned about the world and themselves in a radically different way than they had in the classroom. Social inequality, power relations, and the ideals of democracy became more real for the students involved.
The non-student activists also spoke of a transformation in the students they worked with. In the students, some saw the beginnings of a larger social transformation in American society. As Elaine Bernard pointed out during our interview, when was the last time "Ivy League" students were concerned about the low pay of university staff? The living wage campaigns are the result of an enlargement of a social conscience. It's my hope that this social conscience will continue to guide the activists involved in these campaigns into the future.