Solidarity at Swarthmore, a student-run organization advocating for improved working conditions at Swarthmore, is continuing to campaign for a $5 increase to student and staff wages. The group hosted a rally at Parrish on Friday, Sept. 15 affirming the group’s demands from the college.
In an interview with The Phoenix, an anonymous organizer for Solidarity at Swarthmore, “Alex,” shared why the organization has been pushing for increased wages since the creation of the group in spring 2022. Alex shared that when the group was founded, the minimum wage was $11.24 per hour, so they pushed for a $15 minimum student wage. The group’s demand for a $15 minimum wage for student workers was answered in an email sent by President Val Smith on May 11, summarizing the Board of Managers meeting that occurred on May 5 and 6. The email outlined wage increases for the 2023-24 academic year, with student wages guaranteed to be a minimum of $15 per hour by July 1, 2024.
“The Board recognizes the importance of continuing to invest in and support Swarthmore student workers, faculty, and staff members, particularly given the effects of inflation and uncertain economic conditions,” Smith wrote. “Over the past several months, the administration has been working with the Board’s Finance Committee and others to develop a budget designed to help individuals navigate some of those challenges.”
During the 2020-21 academic year, the minimum wage for non-student and non-faculty staff members was $13.50 per hour. After the college approved an increase for the 2022-23 academic year, the minimum wage was set to $15.75 per hour. During Spring 2023, Solidarity at Swarthmore was advocating for an increase past the $15.75 per hour wage. Alex explained the group’s reasoning for doing so.
“The $15 per hour rate was … not enough to make any substantial living based on that one job, so a lot of staff members had an actual take on multiple jobs. And a lot of them were living under poverty,” he said.
The May 11 email also outlined that all eligible staff members were approved for a 5.25% pay increase, making their minimum wage $17 per hour. Faculty members received a 7.3% to 9% increase, depending on their position. Students received a 16% to 21% pay increase, making the current student minimum wage $13.61 per hour with the highest pay level making $15 per hour. The Board of Managers committed to set a $15 per hour minimum wage for all student workers by July 1, 2024.
The decision to increase wages last semester was celebrated by many student organizers, but the group is still pushing for a $5 increase in student and staff wages to make the minimum staff wage $22 per hour and student wage $18.61 per hour.
Alex discussed their reaction to the college’s email last May about student wages. They noted the importance of recognizing that many Swarthmore students are first-generation and low-income (FLI) and need extra support from the college.
“The FLI students here often send the money home to help support their families. That’s something that’s really important and the college doesn’t acknowledge as often as it should, especially as we talk about the value of student workers,” they said. “They often talk about how we’re just college students, and we don’t have that many expenses. An increase in wages for everybody, especially for FLI student workers, would also help pay a lot of expenses.”
There are debates about what a living wage should look like. According to the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Research, a $21.50 per hour wage would be accurate if the wage was connected to inflation and “productivity growth” today.
“There’s still a bit of back and forth between the school and us as to what can be deemed a living wage, but I think I think $22 per hour is a very well-known number in conversations [about minimum wage] throughout the nation, especially in cities,” Alex said.
In an email to The Phoenix, Vice President for Communications Andy Hirsch stated that the college uses various sources to benchmark wages at the college, including MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, World at Work, the Economic Policy Institute, and CompAnalyst. Using these sources, the college estimates a living minimum wage just under $17 per hour. But the college rounds this rate up to $17 per hour. This estimate also takes into consideration the fact that the college pays 92% of employee health care premiums, leaving only 8% to be paid by the employees themselves.
“Staff members at Swarthmore are highly valued members of the community. Given that, and recognizing the financial challenges affecting many staff members, the College has prioritized increasing staff wages over the past several years,” he said. “We annually benchmark our benefits to ensure they are and remain among the most generous of our peers.”
Solidarity at Swarthmore has also worked to include faculty members in their organizing efforts. Last semester, the group celebrated May Day, or International Workers’ Day, on May 1 and invited students, faculty, and staff to discuss their experiences in the workplace. In an interview with The Phoenix, Professor and Chair of the Department of Educational Studies Edwin Mayorga explained the importance of labor organizing on campus and the interconnectedness between students and faculty.
“This is my tenth year at the college and to me it feels like it has been some time since we’ve had this much organizing work centered on labor happening, as faculty are also currently reviving our AAUP (American Association of University Professors), which is the closest we get to a faculty labor union,” Mayorga said. “With our staff also dealing with labor and compensation issues, it’s clear that we are all facing related, though not exactly the same, challenges regarding working conditions and fair wages.”
Although the focus for student and staff workers has been to increase wages, members of Solidarity at Swarthmore have been advocating for other approaches for faculty, specifically on issues related to childcare and overworking.
“Childcare is something that has historically been asked for from the faculty since the ’80s. Multiple faculty members have also expressed frustration at the level of work that they have to do, Alex said. “[Our efforts] are really about [faculty] being able to more equitably set the pace of their own work and how much work they’re being assigned by the college. A lot of the problems that faculty face are the same systemic problems that staff face.”
Mayorga similarly discussed ways for the college to improve the working conditions of faculty on campus in an email sent to The Phoenix.
“More transparency and equity around salaries for faculty and all categories of labor on campus would be a great start,” Mayorga wrote. “In addition, building infrastructure for childcare and providing student loan debt relief and more support with housing for faculty and staff would also go a long way.”
Solidarity at Swarthmore is not only organizing for wage increases but is hoping to create a community of workers on campus to see shared struggles and create a worker consciousness.
“If everybody within the workplace talked to each other, got to know each other, learned about each other’s struggles, whether they be shared or different, they could see that especially within the workplace, they do share a lot of problems that can be fixed. And that isn’t it isn’t unrepairable. It isn’t non-changeable,” Alex said.
Professor Mayorga was originally an elementary school teacher and activist before going to graduate school. He was active in teacher unions for over 20 years and shared the necessity of centering labor organizing for the betterment of students, faculty, and staff.
“As laborers and humans, I think it’s critical for us to take care of one another and that includes making sure working conditions are good for everyone,” Mayorga said. “But it feels like our campus continues to operate in silos, separated by our roles at the college, which has been to our own detriment. [The current situation] calls for solidarity, and what I see here with Solidarity at Swat is what we need more of around here.”