On the Left Coast, we’ve raised minimum wages in cities. Seattle’s $15 an hour (spearheaded by Kshama Sawant and her supporters) just went into effect. Guess who’s refusing to comply with the law? The University of Washington. Because cogito ergo sum screw you. It seems the adjunct teachers, graduate students, and others who do the majority of the work at UW don’t deserve a living wage.
Everyone thinks of universities as one of the last bastions of liberal values and progressive politics. But when it comes to salaries and wages, colleges and universities are often as top heavy as Hooters or Papa John’s.
I’ve taught at the college level. I was an adjunct. The term implies that you’re kind of supplemental to the core teaching staff, just filling in around the edges. But when you go into the mail room, you see a vast number of mailboxes for the “adjuncts” and a handful for the faculty. Adjuncts do most of the teaching.
A few years ago Gan Golan and I wrote a book called The Adventures of Unemployed Man. One of the core characters, Master of Degrees, has since become the face of the student debt crisis, with his image appearing in hundreds of articles. His backstory is based on the common experience of adjuncts, including my own. But I left out a few things.
When I was teaching, my fiancée was also teaching. Combined, we taught more units, more hours, than the average full-time faculty member. Yet, combined, we were paid about 40% of the entry-level salary for full-time faculty, with no benefits (we had to pay for our own health insurance, for example). Try having a pleasant dinner party at a single-earner faculty household knowing that.
UW’s motto is lux sit (let there be light). Lux sit on this: Let there be a livable minimum wage.
About a year in, I was asked to represent adjuncts on the college’s faculty senate. The adjuncts didn’t have a union or anything; it was more like “Hey, we have these administrative meetings where we decide things, and it’s nice to have someone there who at least nominally represents the adjuncts.”
So I went to the meeting. It was the only time people openly and transparently discussed salaries and wages, and it nauseated me. Here my fiancée and I were devoted teachers struggling to eke out a living on the absolute minimum pay, while the guys in this room were glibly chortling about who among them would get a six-figure golden parachute into early retirement to make the college’s balance sheet look a little better.
I sat there, blood boiling, and thought of my stepfather, a leader of his union, who was a fantastic negotiator in part because he had owned a business and knew exactly what was going on and what was fair. The stress of organizing strikes and debating with management took its toll. He had two debilitating strokes and died in his 50s. On the wall in his office hung the Prayer of Serenity:
Give us the courage to change what can be changed.
To accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed.
And the wisdom to know the difference.
I stood up and walked out of the meeting. Within a year I left teaching, for entirely financial reasons.
The call for a $15 an hour minimum wage is sweeping America. It will be part of the 2016 presidential race. Shockingly, many Democrats have been mum on the issue when it should be a rallying point.
It should also be a rallying point at colleges and universities—not just among the underpaid graduate students, adjuncts, and janitors, but all the way up the ivory tower. Today we’re seeing the impact universities can have on industry by divesting from fossil fuel stocks. They can also be at the forefront of addressing wage inequity. After all, in many college towns and even big cities, the campus is the largest and most influential employer.
UW’s motto is lux sit—let there be light. Lux sit on this: Let there be a livable minimum wage. And peg that wage to inflation, so it increases slightly and steadily every year, and we never again find ourselves working for a wage that is decades behind the cost of living.
FUN FACT: The United States has one of the world’s largest pay gaps. The pay ratio recommended by Gilded Age magnates like J. Pierpont Morgan was 20-to-1. Today, American executives routinely earn 300 times what the average worker makes.