Students from all three University of Michigan campuses filled the Betty Ford auditorium in Weill Hall on Tuesday to advocate for a University-wide minimum wage hike.
The event was held specifically for working students — many of whom have minor criminal records, their own young children or come from financially unstable backgrounds — to share their own personal financial struggles and their experience living off University wages.
The Student Labor Coalition organized the gathering to emulate a wage board, which in some states or municipalities is empowered to determine and enact an adequate minimum wage. The event was modeled on the New York City Wage Board, which passed a minimum wage hike for fast food workers that was later adopted statewide.
Though the state of Michigan does not have such a board, organizers intended for the simulation to allow students and community members the opportunity to consider the impacts of wages at the University.
During the event, students called on the University to increase the wage it pays campus hourly workers, which is often $10 per hour or less for many student jobs, according to a Student Labor Coalition press release. Attendees expressed concerns, in particular, with the high costs of necessary expenditures, like tuition, books and technology, as well as paying off student debts and the cost of living off campus in Ann Arbor.
Student Labor Coalition said they are in favor of raising the University’s minimum wage to $15 per hour — nearly double the state’s minimum wage of $8.15 per hour.
Members of the student organization estimated that implementing the increase would cost the University less than $20 million per year, according to the press release.
If the minimum wage on campus is increased to $15 per hour, the University would be one of a handful of universities making the change. The University of California system and the University of Washington in Seattle plan on paying $15 per hour to minimum-wage employees on their campuses.
The mock wage board consisted of four speakers, who, along with the student speakers, discussed the influence raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour would have at the University. The board included Katie Oppenheim, president of the Nurses Union at the University, and David Reynolds, who works at the Center of Labor and Community Studies at U-M Dearborn. Rackham student Austin McCoy and Chris McKinney, the director of Youth Poverty Project, a nonprofit organization in Detroit dedicated to helping low-income students with college finances, were also members of the board.
Those on the board responded to students’ stories with suggestions of how to make a difference in the current minimum-wage environment.
McKinney specifically spoke about the difficulties students experience when employers require what he deemed unnecessary background information, like an applicant’s parental obligations, that could make the applicant seem less employable.
“We do need to have this conversation and we do need to vote,” McKinney said. “But we do need to have other conversations . . . we don’t have to disclose our past (to employers) because this is America and America was built on new chances, and have not just this discussion, but discussions on increased access to education. There’s a lot of intersectionality when it comes to these issues. It’s not just fight for 15.”
McCoy said, like many of the students in attendance, that he worked in a fast food restaurant when he was in high school.
“One thing that you notice is, if you do a good job working, you’re exploited more,” McCoy said. “You become the person that they call when there’s trouble, you become the person they want to become the manager. They want you to do everything because you’re dependable.”
McCoy said to solve some of these issues, joining a union would undoubtedly help.
“Voting matters, but so does organizing,” he said. “The strike matters. Using the strike becomes a very useful tool, especially when employers do not think that you’re capable of using it.”
Public Policy junior Robert Dickinson, who is president of the United Students Against Sweatshops chapter on campus, said because the Student Labor Coalition is not an official group on campus, he helped the organization coordinate Tuesday’s event.
Dickinson said because he gets paid $9 through working in the dining halls, expenses such as paying the rent can often be difficult, especially in a city like Ann Arbor.
“My parents don’t make a lot of money, and they ask myself and my sisters for money sometimes, and it sucks having to say I don’t have anything,” Dickinson said. “It puts a lot of strains on relationships with people who don’t worry about money, because if people want to go out to dinner, it’s not really an option for me.”
An LSA senior didn’t want to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the topic, said her campus job in a University department doesn’t pay enough to cover the bills.
“As someone who does school full time and a student worker, there was a time when I was working a University job and then I had to have three outside in addition to that,” she said. “I’ve done an entire school year working four jobs before just to pay for my tuition and pay for my bills, while I was taking full-time classes — two semesters of 16 credits and working four jobs at the same time. Needless to say, my academics suffered, and now that’s causing a problem for my grad school apps, because now I’m not as competitive, because I’ve had to work my whole education.”
She said she hopes the University seriously considers a minimum wage hike because she said the proposal represents more than just students asking for more money.
“They want the most out of us and they are not giving us anything back,” she said.
LSA junior Rebecca Wren, a member of the Student Labor Coalition, said she is both a working-class and first-generation college student. Having grown up watching her family work for low wages, she said, she did not always understand how hard they had to work to make minimum wage.
“The last few years I lived in an apartment, and that’s where it really hits you really hard, because there’s rent, and there’s bills, and you’re responsible for yourself all of a sudden,” Wren said.
Wren said she hopes to see at least $15 an hour as the base pay across campus. She said if the University does make this change, it would positively influence the surrounding businesses to do the same. Wren said it could eliminate the misconception that raising wages is a political issue when in reality, some people just want enough money to survive.
“I feel like it is higher education’s role to make changes and to reduce inequality and they’re not doing it right now,” she said.