Friday, April 08, 2005

From Free Speech sit-ins to Living Wage sit-ins: Progress?

More than four decades ago, when American college students thought about serious issues and studied serious disciplines, e.g., Economics, English, History of Science, War and Peace, etc., they focused on serious extra-curricular matters, such as true civil rights, free speech, etc.

One of the most notable early protest movements on campus dealt with free speech, dissent, and political organizing: the famous Berkeley Free Speech Movement:

MICHAEL ROSSMAN: We came back to school [University of California, Berkeley] that fall [1964] and we, including a number of activists -- not only Mario [Savio], but a bunch of others -- who had been down in Mississippi in the summer working to register voters in the south, when potential voters and activists were getting killed. With a lot of passion, we came back to school and the university administration said, well, sorry, you cannot give out pamphlets. You cannot recruit members. You cannot raise money for student political organizations on campus anymore.

Over the previous seven years when the New Left had been rising, we had gotten shoved to the very edge of campus in a little 20-foot brick strip, where we put up our pitiful card tables to conduct these activities, and they said “go”. ..In any case, we began to organize the dissent. We negotiated for two weeks fruitlessly and finally took our tables for various causes, in particular civil rights causes, to the card tables and set them up not on the edge of campus, but right in front of the administration building and started handing out literature and collecting donations.

Lo and behold, they brought a police car on campus…no one had ever seen police on the university campus come to arrest students in political activity ever in this country. They came and arrested a core organizer [Jack]… put him in the car, started to take him away and we sat down around the car…3,000 students sat around the car and kept it from taking Jack off to prison for about a day and a half. And we had a dialogue. Mario [Savio] stepped on top of the car as the first person to speak, and there was an open microphone there for 30 hours…

Excerpted from The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s, November 21st, 2003

Now, that, gentleladies and gentlemen , is a college sit-in. The issues may not have been as “clean,” as represented, but they dealt with the rights of free speech and dissent, something I think liberals and conservatives, on and off college campuses, can join hands on.

Let’s fast forward to modern sit-ins at Washington University in St. Louis this week, Georgetown University last year and Stanford University in 2003. Why are are those students sitting in? To protect every citizen's right to vote, right to use public accommodations and right to equal protection under the laws?

Nope, at Washington University, currently [and the morality play is similar at the above referenced universities] , it is to make sure 500 custodial, groundskeeper and food service employees are paid a “living wage,” which the students, deferring to the economics expertise of St. Louis alderman, argue is $9.79/ hour plus full benefits.

A St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, surveying the sit-in at a Washington University’s admissions office, tells us that “passion for justice is as hip as ever” and that the students are promising to “miss classes if necessary…[to] go to jail…to be [t]here 24 hours a day…until …the Chancellor decides …to pay his employees a living wage…”

But, wait, is there another view from other students on campus? Maybe the St. Louis Post- Dispatch did not provide a fair and balanced story?

My reliable sources on campus tell me some of the students leave the site to go to classes, to eat, etc. Not quite the level of intensity for the sit-in students, as the Dispatch reports. One of my sources is Josh Chupack, a junior at Washington University in St. Louis. Josh is a former four year intern on our television program “Public Affairs,” who grew up in Wilmette and graduated from New Trier High School. Josh sent me a report and analysis, included below [with edits from the publisher of this blog]:

The current sit-in taking place at Washington University protests what many students consider unfair low employee wages. Despite the instincts of large segments of the student body that increasing the custodial wage to a “living wage,” will necessarily help those employees and the university community, the consequences of such a policy are likely more complicated.

What will be the economic impact of raising workers' salaries? If the University pays workers higher salaries-- even if the services provided have not improved, will some of those workers lose their jobs? Of course they will [Demand curves slope downward to the right]. The University will cut the number of employees in response to higher wages, giving the jobs that remain to the most skilled, the hardest working, etc.

The “living wage,” will become the University’s new minimum wage and future applicants will find fewer new jobs, with those job applicants with language barriers, or lesser skills being screened out of positions, thus hurting those workers who the protestors purportedly are most trying to help.
Even with the above described cuts in employment, the university will have to remove funding from other programs or raise tuition to finance some of the higher salaries.

Before students commit themselves to signing a petition or protesting, they should question their initial instincts and do the analysis to determine the likely impacts of a potentially significant change in university policy. If they do that, they will return to classes, helping themselves learn and helping current workers keep their jobs and future applicants get jobs. Further, over time, without the artificially imposed living wage, the workers’ skills will improve and they will get higher wages commensurate with those improved skills. And, so will the students who return to class improve their skills and future wages.

Or as Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago’s most famous Nobel Prize Laureate in economics, would likely put it: “I don’t see how someone is better off unemployed at $9.79/hour than employed at $8.00/hour.”

Neither do I. Where is that new Becker-Posner “Chicago Economics,” blog when we need it?
Jeff Berkowitz, Host and Producer of Public Affairs and an Executive Recruiter doing Legal Search, can be reached at