It Is Time to Take Action for Workers’ Rights

Do you remember why you applied to Swarthmore? In the 2022-2023 U.S. News rankings, Swarthmore was ranked as the #4 liberal arts college in the country. The class sizes are generally small, which allows professors and students to connect more meaningfully. The campus (when not choked by construction fences) is a beautiful arboretum that neighbors a pretty patch of woods split by a creek. And for the 95% of students who live on campus, a swipe into the dining hall offers warm all-you-can-eat food from 7 a.m. – 10 p.m. But let’s face the facts: when students apply to Swarthmore, they have only seen the picture-perfect, public-facing facade of the institution. 

For an institution that publicly claims to support its students, faculty, and staff alike, boasting a magnificent image of diversity in prospective student marketing campaigns, Swarthmore’s treatment of its employees reveals a lack of workers’ rights. Swarthmore College is only possible because of the people who do the work to supply facilities, amenities, and needed services on a daily basis. The workers of the college provide the education, the campus’ beauty, the food, the cleaning and maintenance, and more. For their work, they deserve respect and dignity. That is, at the very least, a living wage, good benefits, and a healthy working environment. Unfortunately, recent events continue to demonstrate how Swarthmore does not care enough about its workers. 

With the opening of the new dining center, known by students as “Narples,” workers have faced increasing challenges. Primarily, their wages do not cover the cost of living. Many workers must take second, and sometimes even third jobs, and thus have very little time off. This, along with unpopular changes like the new late-night hours, has resulted in a staffing shortage. Temps have been hired to partly fill the gap, but there remain too few hands in which to distribute the work. 

Operating with minimal numbers of people has created social pressure against taking time off for sickness or emergency, which can turn workers against each other because if a worker does take time off, the others face pressure to pick up those additional shifts or more work for their co-workers. Increasing wages and benefits would not only be an end in itself, but also a solution to the staffing issue at Narples. This is because it would improve employee retention by making work at Narples more attractive to current and prospective employees.

For such reasons, some of the workers in the Dining Center have penned a letter calling for 1) a $5 hourly wage increase for all staff and student workers, and 2) a solution to the staffing issue. The letter also notes the lack of childcare support and the creation of new late-night shifts that keep them at work later than they’d like. Environmental Services (EVS) workers have mentioned similar concerns such as the lack of adequate breaks and excessive workload. In fact, some EVS workers have been told to do other employees’ work during their own shifts if a co-worker calls out sick. 

Student workers have also continued to see low wages, with a minimum of $11.24. With a $17.53 living wage for a single adult with no children in Delaware County, this is unacceptable. Perhaps Swarthmore should look to its rival Amherst College, which pays a minimum wage of $15.25 in an area with a lower cost of living ($16.28 living wage). Both students and staff are suffering material costs because of how Swarthmore puts its profits and marketing before its workers. 

The college’s approach to “individual” contracts with its workers is not unique, and employers actually prefer this arrangement to avoid unionization and simplify employment termination. This approach leaves workers vulnerable to maltreatment and condemned to exploitation. Further, if the anti-union malfeasances of Starbucks demonstrate anything, it is the risks that employees face when they advocate for their rights. For this reason, it’s especially important for students and faculty to spearhead workers’ rights at Swarthmore. 

There is a long history of Swarthmore students and faculty struggling in solidarity with staff for better wages and working conditions. The Swarthmore Living Wage and Democracy Campaign, which began in 2000, is a prime example of this. But despite the archival materials in the McCabe Library about the campaign, we never hear about it. This campaign was formed by a coalition of students and staff fighting for a living wage, fighting to maintain benefits that the college wanted to cut. The Living Wage and Democracy Campaign put out petitions, held rallies, interrupted board of managers meetings, and protested at graduation. The pay raise that staff secured as a result of this organizing raised the minimum wage to $10.38. The current staff minimum wage is $15 — a raise of $4.62 over 19 years, or about 22 cents per year. We must continue this struggle. In solidarity with the dining workers, we call on Swarthmore to raise the minimum wage for all staff and students by $5 and also to respond appropriately to concerns raised by workers. We will hold an event at Parrish Beach on Friday, April 14, at 12:30 p.m. in which we will have a short rally and then plan how to win the actual, material respect that all workers on this campus deserve. Come claim a pin showing your support for a living wage, paint some banners, make some signs, listen to some great music, meet the specter of economic injustice, and get involved in more upcoming actions this spring!

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