Since the return of students on campus following a year of online learning, the University of Michigan, like many other employers in the Ann Arbor area, has been consistently faced with a shortage of one valuable thing. Student labor — the element that keeps the institution and the surrounding community afloat — has been scarce. Hundreds of student jobs, work-study and non-work-study, remain open on the University’s student employment website. Such a labor shortage led to many problems arising across on-campus facilities. From residence hall mailrooms losing packages to the Hatcher Graduate Library closing earlier in the day this past fall semester, all of these complications have arisen due to a lack of student labor filling in these important roles.
However, the high rate of campus job vacancies did not arise because students on campus simply do not want to work. Instead, it is because of a lack of proper incentives for students to work for the University in what many would call “unskilled,” yet necessary, student jobs.
Despite there being hundreds of openings available on the University’s student employment website, particularly for critical roles that keep our campus operational, such as Dining Hall Service Workers and Student Coordinators, wages only start at $11-$13/hr. While the University may offer “on the spot hiring” to seemingly make it easier and more appealing for students to work on-campus jobs, the reason why people don’t want to work is blatantly obvious: the pay is terrible.
After almost two years of living through a pandemic, one that is still exacting its toll on America as people across the country die daily of COVID-19, many people do not want to risk their lives and well-being only to be underpaid. In fact, many of those who currently hold jobs are actively striking for better wages and working conditions. Dubbed as “Striketober,” thousands of employees — such as workers at the tractor company John Deere — have walked out on their employers this past fall, with many succeeding in achieving their demands, showing the strength and opportunities that the workers have at the bargaining table during this moment in time. During this important moment where the bargaining scales have tipped ever so slightly toward the side of the workers, it is crucial that we begin to advocate for ourselves and demand better wages on campus. Students across all three campuses should begin organizing for a $15/hr minimum wage for all student employees at the University, including using direct action to achieve our mutual goals.
While we all want to increase the quality of life for students, some may still have reservations about raising the student minimum wage. Raising wages would be more expensive to the University, thus potentially triggering the Board of Regents to raise tuition. There is certainly reason to be suspicious of the Board of Regents’ pattern of behavior — like when they decided to raise tuition by 1.9% last year in the middle of the pandemic — and they will almost certainly continue to increase the financial burden on students whether or not student workers are paid sufficiently.
It is becoming increasingly evident to us all that our learning institution is being run with a corporate structure and mentality, where money overrides all other metrics when making a decision. If you’d like some recent evidence, look no further than when a new building is built on campus. Many of these places become dedicated after some wealthy individual or family that has donated millions of dollars to the University rather than an alum who has significantly contributed to society and exemplified the values that the University seeks to promote.
Take, for example, the recently planned construction of a new 163,000-square-foot facility on North Campus for the College of Engineering and School of Information. There are plenty of individuals who have attended the University who would be a perfect namesake for this on-campus building. One person that particularly comes to mind is the late Claudia Alexander, a Canadian-born African-American woman who received her doctorate from the University’s College of Engineering and would later become one of the project managers for NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter. However, on Oct. 21, 2021, the Board of Regents voted for the facility to be dedicated as the Leinweber Computer Science and Information Building after receiving a $25 million gift from the Leinweber Foundation, a philanthropy tank founded by software entrepreneur Larry Leinweber.
Nonetheless, the University is ultimately a public institution overwhelmingly funded by our tuition dollars. We cannot allow the University to make decisions that prioritize profits at the expense of the most vulnerable. As a public entity, the University should be beholden to our input and decisions as a concerned public and student body. While the current University leadership may believe that profits and revenue trump all other considerations, they answer to us, not the other way around.
Not to mention, the University has an endowment that grew approximately 40% solely over the 2021 financial year, ballooning to $17 billion. And yes, it’s the exact same endowment the University refused to utilize, even during the height of the pandemic.
The current situation regarding student employees across campus proves that now more than ever, we as a student body have the precious opportunity to demand better pay for the work we contribute to making the University function at its current capacity. The Young Democratic Socialists of America at the University of Michigan (YDSA) are demanding that the administration immediately adopt an all-campus minimum wage of $15 an hour for all employees for FY2023, and will continue to fight to improve students’ working conditions. For once, we hold a better hand in negotiating for what we deserve, and this time should not be wasted. We need to come together, organize and remind the University leadership that as the “leaders and best” we need to be compensated as such.Would you like to get involved with this movement? You could start by signing this Petition and this Open Letter to demand an increase in the minimum wage. Here’s a portal to send the regents a letter about this as well. There are also events you could attend, perfect for learning more about the movement or working toward the goal of increasing the minimum wage. LSA Student Government and YDSA are cosponsoring a student worker town hall between 1 and 4 p.m. at the Kuenzel Room in the Michigan Union on Feb. 12. Also, you can sign up to speak at an upcoming Regents’ Meeting.
The Young Democratic Socialists of America at the University of Michigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org