Update on Our Movement for a Fifteen Dollar Student Worker Minimum Wage

In late spring 2022, Solidarity at Swat circulated a petition which asked the Swarthmore College administration to raise the student worker minimum wage to $15/hr. The text of our petition was as follows:

$15 For Work is a multi-organization coalition dedicated to increasing the minimum wage for student workers—whose wages have stagnated with minimal increases over the last few years—from $10.78 to $15.00/hr.

Students staff the libraries, check in and distribute packages at the post office, serve food, conduct research around campus, work for professors as TAs and graders, and more. We are not coming from a sense of false entitlement; Swarthmore works because we do. 

Off-campus jobs are usually the only option for students whose needs cannot be met by Swarthmore’s minimum wage. Many first-Gen/Low-Income students have to find these additional jobs to support themselves and sometimes their families. Meanwhile international students often don’t have the option of working off-campus and are restricted to Swarthmore wages. All of this, coupled with increasing inflation should be met with an increase in the minimum wage.

The petition received broad support from the student, staff, and faculty communities at Swarthmore. And with the signatures of more than 850+ Swarthmore community members (now more than 1000), we shared the petition with President Smith and asked for a letter to campus. Instead, we received a private email from President Smith stating that “this issue merits further study and analysis,” and that the administration will be back in touch after consultation with the new Vice President for finance, Rob Goldberg.  

After the publication of Swarthmore Owes Its Students More in the Phoenix op-eds section last fall, only that piece’s author (Tarang Saluja ‘23) received an email from Vice President for Finance Rob Goldberg with a request to meet with him and a few other students. As the administration never responded to the initial request, which was to write a response for campus, members of Solidarity at Swat opted to meet on November 11, 2022 and deliver precisely that same message: provide a direct response to the campus. Solidarity at Swat was informed that the meeting could accommodate three or four students, and so Bryan Rosario ‘25, Ryan McNaughton ’24, Sophie Peterson ’23, and Tarang Saluja ’23 attended. In attendance from the administration side were Vice President for Finance Rob Goldberg, Director of Financial Aid Varo Duffins, Director of Financial Aid Services Kristin Moore, Dean of Students and Professor of Art History Tomoko Sakomura, and ex-poste Vice President of Student Affairs Jim Terhune. 

While we were met with congenial smiles upon entrance and furrowed brows of deep concern when any hardship was mentioned, all we got out of the meeting was a flyer advertising Swarthmore’s strategic planning committee. During the meeting, we repeatedly emphasized that students who signed the petition are waiting for a response from the administration. However, they were more interested in asking us about our work experiences than directly addressing the question of wages. We are disappointed that the administration was unwilling to write a letter to the student body, or provide a timeline for when the administration will contact the student body, or provide a timeline for when we may know a timeline for when the administration will contact the student body.

With inflationary price increases and the fact that there are students who depend on their wages from Swarthmore for travel, supplies, and family, this is not a complicated issue. However, both of our interactions with administration have shown that they would rather hide behind bureaucracy and excuses about complexity than do right by student workers. Not only does Swarthmore College have an exorbitant endowment (2.9 billion as of June 2021), but the MIT living wage calculator also suggests that the DelCo living wage is $17.87 for one adult with zero children. It is embarrassing for the college administration to act as if they are unable to scrape up more than their measly student worker wage scale (11.24, 11.82, 12.39) while money is clearly in abundance for new buildings, the hiring of Playfair Consulting for an orientation activity, and indulgent advertisements at nearly every station from 49th Street to Swarthmore on the Media/Wawa line. 

There is no way that a college which collects close to 80K in tuition from half the student body, and substantial amounts from a significant chunk of the rest, is strapped for cash. It may be true that Swarthmore is attempting to out-compete other schools who similarly depress their student wages, but that does not make it acceptable behavior. In fact, by holding Swarthmore College accountable to the values of justice they advertise, we can also apply upward pressure to wages at other institutions since it will become even more unpalatable and inexcusable to pay workers so little. 

If the administration will not even provide campus with the dignity of a response for why student workers are not paid at least $15 and when that will change, then it becomes necessary for student workers to take matters into their own hands. As mentioned in our original petition text, Swarthmore works because we do. The least that student workers deserve is a living wage, and it is time for the Swarthmore College community to show the administration and Board of Trustrees that we will no longer accept the college’s ethically impoverished accumulation of wealth at the cost of Swarthmore College workers in general. 

If you want to show the administration that the workers of Swarthmore College will not tolerate this disrespect, then organize with us. In 2004, organizing at Swarthmore that had been going on for decades won staff a wage increase to $10.38 from a paltry $9. Even after this win, Swarthmore dragged its feet with regards to raising wages for years afterwards.  The wage for staff was increased to $15 (still below the living wage for Delaware County!) only last year. Follow us on Instagram, and you can get involved with our work by filling out the form here. Help us with communications, plan events to build solidarity, study and analyze laws for our cause, and organize with us towards victory. Without our organizational efforts, only the bare minimum (i.e., almost nothing) will be done. We stand in solidarity with all the workers at Swarthmore College and look forward to working with you. 

Addendum: We asked the administration to comment on our article and received the following response from Vice President for Finance Rob Goldberg. 

Thanks for the opportunity to respond to your letter. We appreciate your continued engagement on this subject, and though we do not agree with all of the characterizations you make in the piece, we all agree on the value and importance of student employees who help support the College across many offices. As we have discussed, we’ve been looking closely at student employee pay for the past several months, and with the budgeting process underway, we are optimistic that we will be able to raise student wages for the coming fiscal year. We look forward to updating you on this important issue as the budget process moves forward. 

While the administration continues to express concern for student employees, this comment neither provides a timeline for when the school will be provided with an update, nor does it concern the raise to a minimum wage of $15. Last year’s 4.25% percent increase (an approximately 50 cent increase for the middle pay level), for instance, in student wages was a raise, but that will not bring the student worker minimum wage to $15. Broadly doing the bare minimum to keep up with inflation, especially when wages have already been generally low, is only a miniscule part of Swarthmore College’s responsibility. Most important is that students are given dignified wages that are on par with what has been calculated to be a living wage, if not more, given the college’s substantial wealth.

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