Anybody who has a job — even a "good" job — knows that they do not have much control over their own working conditions. Workers do not determine how much money they make, what time they have to show up for work or whether they get health care or even lunch breaks. In our hierarchical economic system, unless you are a union member or protected by government regulations, these matters are for bosses to decide. And we all love our bosses, right?
Fortunately, we students next week will be able to determine for ourselves the most important issue of any job: how much our work is valued in dollars. On the ballot of the ASM elections March 28-30, the Living Wage Initiative would guarantee that all student and non-student workers funded by non-allocable student segregated fees receive a raise up to $10.23 per hour. This "living wage," which is equal to 110 percent of the federal poverty line for a family of four, would directly help hundreds of student workers and more older workers at the Memorial Union, Union South, Recreational Sports and University Health Services. But the real impact of the initiative is far greater.
This vote impacts all students because it is our money that pays for these facilities and their operations. Just as the City of Madison and Dane County both passed ordinances to ensure that public money does not pay for poverty-level jobs, the Living Wage Initiative will ensure that student fees support jobs that allow people to make a decent living. No one is going to get rich off of 10 bucks an hour, but they will more easily be able to pay their tuition or support their family.
A living wage is about more than economics, however. It is about our moral priorities. Would we rather have a student working 30 hours per week at Recreational Sports making low wages in order to pay off his loans, or would we have him working 20 hours per week at a higher wage and using that extra 10 hours to actually be a student and do some studying? Do we want a janitor at Memorial Union to be forced to work two extra jobs just to have enough money to raise her kids, or do we want her to make a better wage at the Union so that she can actually have time to spend with those kids?
A vast majority of UW students answered the latter to both questions in the fall when they voted 2-1 in favor of a similar referendum. Although the Student Judiciary overturned students' opinion on a questionable technicality, over 2,500 students signed a petition this semester to get the living-wage question back on the ballot through the initiative process. An initiative is the most democratic way to make a decision, and students should be proud to have voted in favor of workers' rights in the fall and to do so again this spring.
Unfortunately, the other referendum to be voted upon next week has not learned the lesson of listening to students' electoral decisions. Despite being voted down by students last year, the Wisconsin Union has again placed a referendum on the ballot that would increase student segregated fees by almost $200 per year for the next 30 years. These millions of dollars of additional student fees are for renovating Memorial Union and tearing down and rebuilding Union South, we are told. The referendum's real agenda, however, is to take more student money and put in the hands of the UW administration and their corporate partners to build parking lots and private research centers. Very little will actually benefit students. WUFIP, as the proposal is known, might better be described as the Wisconsin Union Financial Usurpation for Corporate Kickbacks — I will let you figure out that acronym yourself.
In this environment where there is a big push to improve the physical structure of the student unions and other campus buildings, we need to improve something else first — the lives of the many people who toil for poverty wages inside those buildings. The Living Wage Initiative will undoubtedly have a ripple effect beyond the workers at the four facilities that it directly impacts, as other campus employers will feel a need to raise their wages to keep up with the prevailing market. If the UW campus is ever to be a community in reality and not just in name, then we must take care of all of those who often work the hardest for us and receive the least.
So the vote next week should be easy. If you work at the Union, Rec Sports or UHS, vote YES to the Living Wage Initiative and give yourself a raise. If you do not work at one of those places, then vote a raise for your friends and classmates; if not for altruistic reasons, then because maybe you will be working one of them next year. And while you're at it, vote NO to the student-fee increase for Union "renovation."
All currently enrolled UW-Madison students can vote online at www.vote.asm.wisc.edu between March 28-30.
Josh Healey is a member of the Student Labor Action Coalition.