by: Katherine Nopper

Living Wages–An Issue of Human Rights
Two years ago, a handful of students recognized a problem at the University of Vermont. Amidst major overhaul, both in terms of new building projects and progressive visioning over UVM’s future, conditions for people working at the University were largely neglected. The student-activists agreed that anyone working at UVM who did not receive a wage to support the cost of living in Burlington was being exploited. Working all day, with negligible benefits, and earning the bare minimum is a violation of human rights and the University had the influence and power to be responsible to the community.

A Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) Chapter was established, which over the past year has transformed into one of the most effective and enthusiastic social justice movements in the University’s history. Working in solidarity with the Vermont Workers’ Center (VWC), Peace and Justice Center (PJC), Vermont Livable Wage Campaign (VLWC), Living Wage Action Coalition, along with local unions and community leaders, the students researched current conditions at UVM and pressed for recognition and accountability by the administration.

Despite assertions by UVM’s President, Daniel Fogel, that only a “handful” of workers did not meet a living wage standard, the VLWC estimated that over a third (167 of 307) service and maintenance workers made less than the living wage of $12.02/hour. Wage trends from other college campuses showed that cafeteria workers, contracted by Sodexho, earned a miserly average of $8/hour. In addition, 279 of 632 clerical workers made less than $25,000, the living wage for a one-person family.

People Ignited Will Not Be Ignored
After the first meetings between SLAP leaders and the top administrators, it became clear that the administration would not accept the idea of a livable wage, and was not the least interested in investigating an issue that made workers rights, and not capital investment projects, a top priority.

The administration’s response fueled a fire that proved the issue was not going to fade away. SLAP students were outside the library, cafeteria halls, and bookstore nearly every day with megaphones, flyers, and banners, informing the student body about livable wages and the injustices that were being committed within their own campus community. Supported by the VWC, PJC, and area unions – including the United Academics faculty union, UE’s service and maintenance workers, UVM’s staff organized with UPV-AFT, and the Vermont Building Trades Council, the campus-wide solidarity campaign became known as “Good Jobs @ UVM.”

In the face of anti-union sentiments on campus and millions of dollars being spent on new construction projects without ensuring fair contracting standards, a “Do the Right Thing” petition began circulating on campus. The petition demanded that all employees had the right to organize without interference and intimidation from the University, and that the University adopt Responsible Contractor procurement policies to ensure that workers were afforded training, safety, pay and benefits to support their families. Meanwhile, the Student Government Association (SGA) debated a livable wage resolution where President Fogel informed the SGA of his “vision” and the financial stability of UVM, yet highlighted that debt is a “big problem.”

Last November, SLAP students and supporters of the Good Jobs @ UVM campaign delivered the petitions, now with over 1,200 signatures, at a Board of Trustees meeting followed by a noontime rally where over 100 students and community members showed their support. The rally also provided the first press coverage around the issue, proving that SLAP was serious about making changes. A week later, the SGA passed the living wage resolution unanimously, changing its name to the “Basic Needs Budget,” and created a committee to investigate the conditions and wages of UVM workers. Going into winter break students were finally gaining momentum.

SLAP Responds to Slow Moving Administrators
A formal set of demands was presented at the February Board of Trustees meeting asking UVM for responsive decisions and movement on three demands: 

  1. The adaptation of a livable-wage policy for all directly-employed and contracted UVM workers
  2. Agreement to move to a strictly neutral position on union organizing, including the right to card-check neutrality
  3. The establishment of Responsible Contractor policies including apprenticeship training programs

Administrators responded by citing the creation of the SGA committee investigating livable wages at UVM as proof of movement on demand number one, but flatly rejected the proposed card-check neutrality and claimed that all contracted construction adhered to strict environmental standards. 

SLAP pointed out that the committee for livable wages had not met once in three months, even though it had promised its first report by the end of fall finals, and reiterated the demand that neutrality be guaranteed by written policy and that contracting standards include labor standards. A sufficient response and a plan for implementation were requested by April 7th.

As the deadline, and beginning of the SLAP “Week of Action” drew near, the administration still had not responded and the livable wage committee had not yet met. SLAP students knew that visibility and active community support would be needed. 

The week began with a press conference, led by Stewart Acuff, National Organizing Director of the AFL-CIO. The following day SLAP members brought computers and cell phones to tables all over campus for classmates to send letters and messages of support for the implementation of a livable wage at UVM. 

Students held a “dance-in” for livable wages in front of the President’s wing, dropped off letters for Fogel, held their weekly speak-out in front of the Waterman administration building, and delivered a final petition to the administration in support of all SLAP demands. 

Finally on April 7th, a culminating rally took place on the steps of Waterman, turning out close to 200 students and a force of passionate community leaders. The message rang loud and clear, spoken by students, union leaders, politicians, and UVM faculty and staff: Livable Wages Now!

Solidarity in Action
Recognizing that the administration was going to continue to rebuff student and public demands, a group of 14 SLAP students participated in a direct action training. Early Monday morning, students approached the President’s wing of Waterman with packed camping bags, guitars, and pillows in hand with the intent to occupy the wing until their policy proposals were met. With a stroke of bad-luck, they were greeted by Vice President Michael Gower with key in hand. Frustrated, yet resilient, the “Slapatistas” retreated and regrouped.

During this crucial period of confusion and disillusionment, fellow SLAP students rose to the occasion. Students gathered on the green in front of Waterman to erect a “tent-city” – a visible display of solidarity in action for administrators in the building across the street. Over 30 tents were erected, including a dwelling made out of boxes and a “town hall” constructed out of picket fence materials. Students walked by on their way to classes, cars honked, and the visiting admitted students and their families curiously stared at the small village. The issue of livable wages was debated across campus, within classrooms, and amongst friends. The tent-dwellers were visited by Congressman Bernie Sanders, and the next day greeted with early morning coffee left by Representative David Zuckerman. Every day workers from across campus brought food or soda with words of thanks and appreciation, community businesses donated food, and random students came by to show their support.

Last minute efforts to convene the Livable Wage Committee were finally met, yet under guidelines set by the administration. UVM administrators had been forced to acknowledge the issues presented by SLAP throughout the year, but the creation of the task force was too little, too late, and promised nothing as far as implementation.

After three nights of sleeping outdoors and with the permit set to expire, tent-city activists were handed a warning notice, threatening jail time and thousands of dollars in fines if their stay lasted beyond the set hour. SLAP leader, Colin Robinson, was called into the President’s office and threatened with judicial action that would jeopardize his ability to graduate. Rather than submit to intimidation, SLAP students convened on the green well past the permit time to decide whether to end tent-city or not. Police eventually showed up with sirens and flashing lights, and students began to pack up their tents, illuminated by the headlights of nine police cars and a DUI arrest vehicle. In the confusion, eight students were issued citations despite the fact that all students were packing up peacefully. 

“We’ll Be Back!”
The next edition of the school paper, The Vermont Cynic, was filled with the SLAP campaign issues and activities, and specifically highlighted the days of tent-city and its conclusion. An open letter from the faculty asked for an apology and explanation from the administration, and many passionate op-eds and in-depth articles explained the week’s events. It was also at this time that the labor community displayed its strength and solidarity with the students and movement at UVM. A community delegation was formed and greeted President Fogel the next Monday morning, demanding all charges be dropped and the adaptation of SLAP’s policy proposal.

President Fogel issued a campus-wide letter explaining UVM’s adherence to socially just values and specifically addressed SLAP’s actions. By finals week, the task force had met twice, debating not whether to establish a policy, but what terms and conditions the policy should include. These meetings will stretch into the summer, with strong leaders remaining in the area to lay the foundation for a firm proposal. SLAP is satisfied for the time being, but the students know that any process controlled by administrators promises little or no action. 

In the fall, SLAP will be back out, with greater strength than ever. Changes have been set into motion and students will continue to call on the University to move towards an equitable living wage policy and jobs with justice. While the first step has been taken, only forward progress will be acceptable. The Slapatistas promise to continue working and raising a ruckus while UVM pays its workers poverty wages.