Columns / Discourse / November 20, 2019

The Fire This Time: Dispelling the anti-labor smoke screen

As many of you may know, there’s a buzz abound over the wages made by our campus’ Resident Assistants. Currently our RA’s make $6.99 (calculated from their stipend pay and housing discount), $1.01 below the state minimum ($8.25) after taxes and $1.26 before. This is made possible through their being paid via stipend. Alarming as this is, luckily this figure will be changing to $9.64 next year (with a change in housing discounts, along with the increase set to $9.25 in January).

But you should still be alarmed. First, by the level of discourse surrounding their wages in the foreground, and second, the implications for all student workers in the background.

You really wouldn’t have to look far to see the unconsciousness I speak of. Take a look at the Student Senate minutes from two weeks ago, or lend your ears to the annoyed moanings of some peers upon hearing their request for fair wages. There is a strong level of disconnect on the feasibility, necessity and trajectory of a thing like the push for fair wages and ethical treatment.

This is hardly a surprise in my mind. Such sentiments against the average person pushing up against the status quo have existed for quite some time. We believe very little in what the little guy is owed and what they can achieve.

So why don’t some of us believe our RAs? Why don’t we want to give credit to their needs (not wants)? Why are some jumping to the defense of a system acting in ill faith against our fellow peers and afraid of others who are being harmed speaking out as a result?

It comes out in the language we use to interact with this discussion. We bring up the type of job being an RA is. We fail to see why a pay raise is even necessary because it fails to chalk up to our standards of physically gruelling, harsh work (perhaps like working on the Knox Farm or alongside Caf workers).

Our country, founded on the Protestant view of only hard, physical work deserving equal reward (in the form of godliness then or better wages now), has dictated to us that a job that is – frankly – coded as less perceptively masculine and less perceptively difficult will deserve less reward.

However, let’s take that argument to the end of the line. Why would this mean that they deserve to be paid below the minimum wage to begin with? And do we believe that if the student workers in the cafeteria asked for safer conditions or better wages themselves (as they rightfully should) that these dissenters would then stand in approval?

It’s a sad and certain ‘no’ to both. The goal in that is not proportional reward; it is blind agreement to protect a system that helps none of us.

On the topic of difficulty, it has also been brought up that the job of RA varies greatly in terms of responsibility. This is true and a good point to raise. Some are required to do more than others. RAs in freshman dorms must hold various events for their residents, keep watch over them throughout the week and have a higher frequency of contact with their residents than those that work with upperclassmen.

Yet, varied job type does not demand suppressed wages be put upon those doing the most work. That drawdown of wages is not a logical resolution, when instead the structure of this job could be altered to be more equitable to all workers in the RA position. Such a disparity doesn’t impact any other jobs on campus.

We are all paid equally among colleagues and at the set minimum wage of Illinois (a law that should’ve been met across the board to begin with). Do not betray the wellbeing of your fellow workers because you are angry others work less than you.

Lastly, and most importantly, it should not be the priority of the worker to hold down their rights and wages just so their employer has an easier time making money. Yes, Knox is in a deficit. Yes, Knox runs a tight ship. No, this is not an excuse to pay workers for less than the minimum wage and for less than the hours they work.

We must recognize that, regardless of the economic standing of our employer, the money to be paid fairly to the RAs not only exists but is absolutely owed to them for the labor they do. Not a penny less. Where is the sympathy for our low incomes? Where is the mercy for our precarious financial standings?

Knox can and must find a way to pay the RAs fairly. With the minimum wage set to increase in January anyways – and for the next five years more broadly – this is something they will have to figure out for all of us. If we’re willing to bow to this exploitation when it concerns the RAs, who’s to stop them from levying that same exploitation against the rest of us?

When you have more in common with your fellow workers and less with your employer, who do you really think has your back when it counts?

Soleil Smith, Discourse Editor
Discourse Editor

Tags:  campus culture fair wages labor resident assistant wages

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