About 20 students and four professors gathered on the lawn of Old Main in a protest to demand higher wages for low-wage workers.
The demonstration, which was held Wednesday, April 15, was organized by Knox MEChA, and was part of a national day of action that was the largest protest since the low-wage worker movement entered the national spotlight in 2012.
The demonstrators came together under the label “Fight For Fifteen,” referring to their demand for a $15/hour minimum wage for all workers.
The demonstrators passed around a megaphone and expressed their anger over the persistence of low wages even as corporate profits have increased.
“How many of you have seen your parents struggle? How many of you have struggled yourselves?” sophomore Marilyn Barnes, whose mother makes less than $15/hour, asked the demonstrators.
“A lot of us are paying through college and we don’t get paid that much. Even here at Knox, we only get paid $8.25 and we only get 10 hours a week,” Barnes said.
“If Wal-Mart can afford to bribe governments, they can afford $15 per hour,” sophomore Jonathan Tupper said, referring to a 2012 case in which Wal-Mart bribed local government in a Mexican town in exchange for favorable zoning laws.
The crowd then marched around campus with a megaphone, chanting slogans including “Exploitation ain’t the way, student workers demand fair pay.” The demonstration was small, but loud. As the march wrapped up, sophomore Jose Guevara encouraged the demonstrators to chant “fifteen” as loudly as they could.
“Let’s make sure the whole school knows about this,” Guevara said.
The organizers were disappointed by the low attendance, which they generally attributed to the fact that they had so little time to promote the event. However, they also suspect that there is a fair amount of opposition on campus to raising wages.
“I don’t know what the percentage of low income students at Knox is, but I’m sure it’s smaller than the percentage of people with money,” Barnes said. “So it could be that people don’t support our cause. I heard people talking about it after the protest, people saying that we don’t need to raise the minimum wage … I get angry sometimes because on Facebook I see a lot of posts opposed to the movement, people saying [low wage workers] have to go back to school if they want to make more money. They aren’t looking at the big picture. There might be some people working at McDonalds because they don’t want to go back to school, but some of them can’t. Undocumented workers can’t go to school past high school, because they can’t get funding.”
Sophomore Max Wallace is opposed to raising wages for student workers.
“Its not that I’m opposed to the movement in general, but as far as this campus goes, demanding that the college raise the minimum wage to $15/hour is unrealistic for a lot of reasons,” Wallace said. “Knox is a not-for-profit, so it doesn’t have a profit that it could pull from to pay its student workers more. If it were to raise the wages of the students, all of the costs that that would entail would come directly from the students, so it wouldn’t make us any more money. … Knox hasn’t even been keeping faculty wages up with inflation, because they haven’t been able to afford it, so the notion that they would double the wages of all the student workers is unrealistic.”
Wallace understands the grievances of the students, but thinks that Knox will not raise wages for student workers without broader political change.
“The only reason Knox can afford to pay its workers at all is because the government subsidizes it,” Wallace said. “But if you double the wages the government isn’t going to double the subsidies. The government would only raise the subsidies if the minimum wage was raised.”
Wallace said he would support the possibility of a federal $15/hour minimum wage.
Fight For Fifteen activists at Knox understand that it could be problematic to ask Knox to raise wages without these broader changes.
“I’m not sure about the mechanism, but we need to do something about inequality,” said Professor of Economics Steve Cohn, who attended the protest. “Inequality has increased dramatically since the 1970s, and a movement to get attention for people at the bottom is very welcome and a good thing.”
“They say that once they raise it to 15, everything else is going to raise,” Barnes said. “What sucks is that the cost of living has already been raised, and minimum wage hasn’t been raised. There’s a gap.”