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Student Labor Initiative makes waves, deemed overstep

Updated: Apr 10, 2022

Melissa Baskin

Staff Writer

Members of Willamette’s socialist student organization, the Student Solidarity Union (SSU), who proposed a bill that would increase the hourly pay of those that work in jobs funded through the Associated Students of Willamette University (ASWU) from $12.75 to $15.00. From left to right: Cameron Cole '23, Forrest Derr '24, Zeke Druker '24. Photo by Melissa Baskin.

Current Marion County minimum wage vs the SLI proposed minimum wage for ASWU funded jobs. Graph by Jennifer Antonson

Members of Willamette’s socialist student organization, the Student Solidarity Union (SSU), proposed a bill that would increase the hourly pay of those that work in jobs funded through the Associated Students of Willamette University (ASWU) from $12.75 to $15.00. The [Student Labor Initiative] (SLI) would also have started paying ASWU senators, raised the student fee and would only have allowed those in ASWU-funded jobs to be fired due to gross misconduct or failure to follow reasonable written directives. Instead of going through the ASWU senate, organizers of the SLI collected signatures to submit it as a petition to go on the ballot during the ASWU executive elections this semester. However, the SLI did not end up on the ballot, with university administration citing that it went beyond ASWU’s abilities.

Calculation of the SLI minimum wage over time. Graph by Jennifer Antonson

According to co-author Zeke Druker (‘24), “The Student Labor Initiative (SLI) was an ASWU constitutional initiative to require that ASWU-funded workers are paid a $15 an hour minimum wage and can form unions, with the hope that these labor protections create competitive pressure on other university positions to ensure that they also are better protected.” Druker said that the current hourly pay for student workers is not sufficient to allow the student body to pay their bills, and that leadership awards, the method of payment for non-hourly student employees, prevent those that pay monthly rent from being able to do so. Druker and former Senator Cameron Cole (‘23), the other co-author of the bill who was a senator while the SLI was being put forth, both said that this bill would allow students to better support themselves. This initiative was to go on the ballot for referendum after organizers gathered signatures from 10% of the student body.

The current student fee, the SSU claimed fee under SLI, the fee ASWU needs to function financially, and what ASWU says the fee will realistically be under SLI. Graph by Jennifer Antonson

Both the opponents and proponents of this bill within ASWU agree that a minimum wage increase is beneficial for the student body. “I'm big on the $15 minimum wage, I think it's awesome, it's a great idea,” said ASWU Treasurer Michael Burke (‘23). “I think that they are being unclear when they say we would only need $150 as a student fee, we would need much more than that…I would put it at least $180 but probably like $216. $216 is the number if we wanted to cover all our fees next semester.“ The bill’s opponents and proponents also agree on the idea of protecting the right of student workers to unionize.

ASWU's current expenses vs ASWU expenses under the SLI. Graph by Jennifer Antonson

Treasurer Michael Burke explained that “the biggest flaw in their bill is that they cover themselves, but they are not taking into account the fact that we can't really afford what we are doing.” He further explains that “[the initiative] is taking our wage expense from around $71,000 all the way to around $112,000….Their increase in fee covers that $40,000 difference. The issue is that this puts us at the same place we are now, where we have an income of $198,000 a semester…we are only pulling in around $12,000 every semester”. There is a further question into the math as the way the math is broken down, it is assumed that all ASWU funded jobs are paid at $12.75, which is not the case as many get paid under leadership awards. This initiative would allow ASWU senators and executives to also be paid a $15/hour wage. While Senator Gus Gunter (‘23) agrees with an overall increase of minimum wage, he disagrees with the part about paying ASWU senators. Gunter said, “I don't think that that extra $15 once a week makes up for the opportunity cost…. The opportunity cost of having to go to ASWU once a week for an hour means that you are losing probably 3 hours of other shift time.” This part of the bill has raised the question of whether what ASWU senators do is enough to justify compensation. The other side of this is that positions like the SARAs (Sexual Assault Response Advocates) would get paid more. Both Burke and Gunter agree that positions like SARAs are essential on campus and need better compensation.

One main component of the SLI was paying ASWU senators, something Gunter did not agree with. “I think that ASWU is a deeply flawed organization at the moment and I am not sure that what senators currently do deserves to be compensated,” Gunter said, adding that “the majority of senators do not do a significant amount of work outside of [weekly meetings].”

Calculation of the SLI student fee overtime. Graph by Jennifer Antonson

There is further concern that students who don't work in ASWU-funded jobs would essentially be paying a higher student fee but not seeing a wage increase, as well as a concern that those that are working under ASWU-funded jobs would be paying their own wages. Gunter mentioned this concern: “It seems disconcerting that we would be taking money from students on work-study to pay ASWU-funded leadership positions.” Gunter then added that those working non-ASWU-funded jobs would have to work four to five hours to cover the fee increase under the SLI. “That doesn’t benefit the student body,” he said. The writers of this bill hope that this will put pressure on the university to also increase the wages of all on campus jobs.

Lisa Holliday, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Engagement & Leadership, reached out to proponents of the SLI on Feb. 24 to say that the SLI would not be put on the ballot for referendum. Holliday explained that the student body and ASWU do not have the jurisdiction to alter employee status, nor do they have the ability to change what students are paid. During the Feb. 24 ASWU senate meeting, Senator Forrest Derr (‘24) asked Holliday to clarify and justify why the SLI would not be on the ballot during the next ASWU election. Holliday explained that “the university decides who is an employee of the university, and the university decides what employees get paid. So, ASWU does not have the jurisdiction to determine who in student leadership positions is an employee, and then also what their pay will be.” She said ASWU has input on student wages through leadership award amounts, which are agreed upon by the ASWU treasurer. Derr said the bill includes provisions for cases where paying students hourly wages isn’t feasible, either financially or because they are undocumented, and asked why the part of the bill that would adjust student leadership awards to the equivalent of $15 per hour couldn’t go to a vote. Holliday said that decision is made by the leadership award committee according to a formula that ensures equal pay for hourly and student leadership award employees, and that not all employees paid by student leadership award fall under ASWU.

As per the [SSU club profile], the proponents of the SLI have met with Holliday which resulted in an impasse. Leadership for the SSU has stated that they will continue to push for a minimum wage adjusted for cost of living, as well as other rights for student workers.

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