Board adopts Bloom’s living wage proposal, “no chance” for more

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In what was described both as the conclusion of a five-year process and as just one step in an even longer campaign, the College Board of Managers approved President Bloom’s staff compensation proposal at its December meeting yesterday. The proposal establishes a minimum wage of $10.38 per hour, preserves the benefit bank equivalent to an additional $0.88 per hour, increases funding for professional development, provides a means-tested health care subsidy for employees and their partners earning up to $14 per hour, and requires assistance for employees filing for Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) coverage for their family and coverage from the college if such an application is denied. The proposal does not include any measures to address decompression or staff child care expenses.

While the Board debated staff compensation and other topics inside Kohlberg Hall, roughly 80 people attended the Swarthmore Living Wage and Democracy Campaign rally “Building New Foundations Toward a Living Wage at Swarthmore College” outside. Emcees Chela Delgado ’03 and Harris Kornstein ’06, the speakers, and the performers at the rally expressed support and praise of the decision to adopt this proposal, but there remains work to be done in the eyes of the Campaign.

Sam Bell ’05 declared “we still need a living wage” and challenged the community that “if anybody thinks this issue is dead because of a $1.38 wage increase, they misjudge the Campaign”.

However, Barbara Mather ’65, Chair of the Board of Managers, and Elizabeth Scheuer ’75, Chair of the Board’s Working Group on the Living Wage, agreed that “there’s no chance” for more. Scheuer emphasized that the proposal should “not be seen as a first step — this is what we’re able to do”. Both agreed that the issue has essentially been removed from the table for the next three years at which point the committees charged with reviewing the effectiveness of the implemented measures will report to the Board’s Finance Committee.

As described in Bloom’s proposal, “[t]he College Budget Committee and the Faculty/Staff Benefits Committee, in conjunction with Human Resources, will be charged with reviewing, from their appropriate perspectives, the effectiveness of these measures. Such reviews…will include evaluating the effectiveness of these measures in enabling our employees to meet their minimum financial needs…assessing the impact of these measures on maintaining an appropriate relationship between job requirements and the experience and qualifications of those hired, and…monitor[ing]…any unintended consequences of changing the College’s compensation policy that might follow from the implementation” of the wage and benefit increases.

In addition to discussion at previous board meetings, the board members debated the proposal for about an hour Saturday morning, with a variety of opinions expressed on both sides of the issue before coming to their decision. Having concluded the Board’s consideration of the matter, Mather expressed satisfaction with the result, noting that “people have worked really hard in finding the best solution for the entire community”.

Scheuer commented that in its decision the Board has balanced “conflicting needs and priorities” to come to the current plan and said that further changes could be “damaging to everyone’s hard work” on the matter.

In the time between the foundation of the Campaign and the decision reached yesterday, both the Campaign and board members have “come to respect the views of their opponents, [although] not necessarily to accept them,” said Mather.

Both Mather and Scheuer highlighted the fact that Swarthmore College is one of the best employers in the area, with “virtually no turnover” and above-average wages.

While board members leaving Kohlberg expressed a sense of finality about the decision, a few joked about “the next campaign” organizing outside. Speakers and performers included a range of characters: Swat students, professors, and staff; progressive activists from throughout the Philadelphia area; and Paul Scoles, the Democratic Party candidate for the Seventh District of Pennsylvania in November’s elections.

Professor Jeffrey Murer of the Political Science Department challenged the Board to “demonstrate that ethical intelligence” and proclaimed that Swarthmore “does not have to be run like a business”. He encouraged students to ask people, “when you say run like a business” do you mean “exploit[ing] workers?” Musical performances included Myra Kate Vallianos ’05, Patrice Berry ’06, and Matt Rubin ’03. Rubin led the gathered crowd in a song about historical efforts to discourage unionizing as unholy with shouts of “that’s a lie” following his promise that “you’ll get a pie in the sky when you die.”

Harris Kornstein ’06, both an organizer and emcee for the rally, described the event as a great success going “off without a hitch.” He noted that the primary purposes were to “celebrate [what the Campaign hoped would be] a victory, to bring people together who have been engaged in these conversations for quite some time, and to re-energize for the future.”

While there are not yet any specifics availble regarding the Campaign’s plans for next semester, he commented that “we made this happen — and we won’t be hesitant to keep pushing this closer to the Ad Hoc Committee’s recommendation.” The adopted proposal contains elements of the Ad Hoc Committee’s recommendation, including the centerpiece minimum wage hike, but, among others, child care provisions were not included. In addition a minority of the Ad Hoc Committee recommended a higher minimum wage of $13.89 per hour. The majority recommended a $10.72 wage which, adjusted for two years of inflation to $11.26, was the level achieved by the $10.38 minimum wage and $0.88 benefit bank equivalency adopted yesterday.

With the Board moving on from the issue and the Campaign regrouping for more action next semester, student activists may find that their largest challenge comes in the form of a student body that at times seems to be increasingly disaffected with the living wage effort. In casual conversation following the decision, students who expressed excitement at the news that the compensation proposal had passed frequently expressed disappointment that it did not mean that the Campaign would be closing up shop.

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