UM students, professors join fight for $15 minimum wage as costs rise

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Students, professors and other members of the University of Michigan community congregated Sunday at a Fight for 15 rally, bringing together advocates for two school labor initiatives and a statewide minimum wage ballot drive. 

Standing on the steps of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, speakers called on the university to introduce a $15-an-hour minimum wage for all students and temporary workers across its three campuses, introduce a fieldwork stipend for School of Social Work students, and tout the ballot initiative to raise the state of Michigan's minimum wage to $15 by 2027

People listen to speakers advocating for the University of Michigan to raise the minimum wage for student and temporary workers across all three campuses to 15 dollars an hour on the campus of the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, April 10, 2022.

Organized by the university's chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, Payment for Placements and One Fair Wage, the rally follows UM's introduction in June 2021 of a $15 minimum wage for permanent workers across the campuses in Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn. 

"We want (the school) to value all the labor that everyone puts into this university to make it into a great institution," said Logan Smith, a YDSA organizer. "On our campus, students drive all the buses, students work in the libraries, students serve the food in the dining hall. So they're really essential to the functioning of the university." 

The rally Sunday comes after a petition drive to raise the school's minimum wage for student and temporary workers, which the organization delivered to the board of regents with around 600 signatures. Smith, 22, said some of the regents had been receptive to their demands. 

Jason Kosnoski, an associate professor of political science on the Flint campus, said it was "a shame" for a university with a $17 billion endowment to increase wages. 

"We know you have the money to treat workers with dignity and respect," said Kosnoski.

In addition to the school's endowment, organizers such as Noah Streng, president of the university’s chapter of the YDSA, pointed to former president Mark Schlissel's salary before his removal from his post. 

"If the university could afford to pay (Schlissel) $927,000 a year, we can easily afford to treat workers with dignity by utilizing a mere sliver of the $17 billion endowment that the university sits on," said Streng. 

"The university approved a $15/hour minimum for our regular employees last year," UM said in an emailed response Monday. "We continue to review all employee pay (including regular, student and temporary), especially that of our lower paid and hourly employees as we develop next year's budget."

People listen to speakers advocating for the University of Michigan to raise the minimum wage for student and temporary workers across all three campuses to 15 dollars an hour on the campus of the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, April 10, 2022.

Streng, 22, said education was becoming increasingly unaffordable for students at the university’s three campuses. 

"Tuition and cost of living continue to rise amid the pandemic as student wages remain the same," said Streng. "This system inevitably favors those with the ability to pay staggering rates and forces out low-income students from marginalized backgrounds who don't have that privilege." 

Hasna Kazi, 26, co-vice chair of the university's chapter Payment for Placements, said the organization worked to call on universities across the country to pay social work students stipends for the 912 hours of field work they are required to do as part of their training. 

Kazi said she and other social-work students end up with a 100-hour work week when they have to hold down one or two jobs to make ends meet, in addition to their course loads and the required field work. As few as 12% of students get paid for the placements, organizers said.

The School of Social Work did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Recognizing the value of labor connected all three organizations at the rally Sunday, Kazi said. 

"All of us are fighting for people to get recognized for the work that they do," said Kazi. "Our organizations could not survive without our labor."

Daric Thorne of UM’s Institute for Social Research and the Huron Valley Worker Organizing and Research Center said that temporary workers he encountered were underpaid and had unsteady work. 

"I’m hopeful that the largest employer here in Washtenaw County, one of the largest in the state of Michigan, can make the necessary moral and ethical choices to pay their workers at least $15 an hour," said Thorne, "to make sure that … the very real work our social service workers are doing and their placement programs are paid and compensated fairly." 

People listen to speakers advocating for the University of Michigan to raise the minimum wage for student and temporary workers across all three campuses to 15 dollars an hour on the campus of the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, April 10, 2022.

Canvassers also were at the rally Sunday collecting signatures for the ballot initiative to raise Michigan's minimum wage, following a March rally in which U.S. Rep Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, joined the effort. 

Under the proposal, by the Raise the Wage Michigan Ballot Committee, Michigan would increase the $9.87 an hour minimum wage in $1 increments over five years, starting at $11 in January 2023 and increasing to $15 by 2027. The initiative would require automatic adjustments for inflation every year after 2027.

It would also end the "sub-minimum wage" for tipped workers, for people younger than 20 years old or for people with disabilities. 

halbarghouthi@detroitnews.com

@HaniBarghouthi