< Back | Home

April 14, 2007

Tent city goes up Again at UVM

By TIM JOHNSON, Burlington Free Press

It is becoming a rite of spring, the tent city pitched at the University of Vermont by students promoting a "livable wage" campaign for UVM employees.

About 30 students were camping out mid-week in front of the Royall Tyler Theatre, a site that draws plenty of foot traffic between the library and the main campus.

There have been a few developments since last spring's tent city on the green, from which demonstrators were evicted after their permit expired. Soon after, President Dan Fogel charged a Basic Needs and Equitable Compensation Task Force with making recommendations on policies guiding employment practices for lower-paid workers.

The 19-member task force, which comprised students, faculty and staff, issued a report in October, analyzing compensation practices and recommending that UVM establish a wage floor -- a wage sufficiently high to enable a single, full-time employee to meet basic needs.

That same month, the union representing UVM's service and maintenance workers, United Electrical Workers Local 267, ratified a three-year contract that left some members below the $12.28 per hour standard that the task force had identified as "livable." (The lowest starting wage for a full-time UVM employee under the new contract was $10.60, nearly a dollar higher than under the previous agreement.)

In January, Fogel issued "Parameters for Compensation at the University of Vermont," which committed the university to considering basic needs in determining pay rates.

Jane Knodell, an associate professor of economics and chairman of the task force, said her personal view was that the Fogel statement was "significant" in that the university would "take the cost of meeting basic needs into account."

"I hope that the board of trustees will monitor the application of these principles in some way," Knodell said, adding that she was speaking as an individual, not as chairwoman.

The task force disbanded after issuing its report.

Fogel's statement did not, however, accede to the task force's recommendation of a wage floor, and thus drew expressions of dismay from members of the Student Labor Action Project -- which organizes the tent city demonstrations -- and from some other members of the task force.

"We're disappointed that the university isn't willing to do something to get folks up to that level," said Carmyn Stanko, an electrician at UVM and president of United Electrical Workers Local 267. "The reality is that in three years, we're going to be even further behind."

Tom Gustafson, vice president for student and campus life and a task force member, said the $10.60 per hour starting wage was "dramatically above the market rate" and "higher than at any other higher education institution we can find." If benefits were included, he said, that compensation might work out to $14 to $15 per hour. He suggested that the administration and livable wage proponents might not be so far apart after all.

"At the macro level," Gustafson said, "the challenge is to balance paying a reasonable wage against keeping tuition reasonable." Tuition is a major source of income at UVM.

A "livable wage" is commonly defined as one that's high enough to meet typical monthly living expenses. The task force and the student activists have relied on the Basic Needs Budgets prepared every two years by the state Legislature's Joint Fiscal Office. Those budgets estimate the costs of food, housing, transportation, clothing and other items for people in urban and rural areas of Vermont. The $12.28 per hour figure that the task force cited last year was the 2005 figure adjusted for inflation. A more recent hourly livable wage for a single person, as reported in the office's January 2007 report, is $13.62 an hour.

"The key argument for the livable wage is one of social justice," said Ross Thomson, a task force member and an associate professor of economics, "but economists have shown that paying above-market wages can increase the productivity of employees, reduce turnover, and reduce training costs."

Exactly how many UVM employees fall below the more recent figure is unclear, although Heather Riemer, U.E. field organizer, estimated it to be 60 percent of the 300-member bargaining unit.

The task force's October report cited May data that showed 256 UVM employees below the $12.28 standard. Bringing all of those employees up to that standard would cost $700,000 to $1 million, the task force estimated. UVM's general fund budget for 2007 is $234 million.

If employees who work at UVM for private contractors are included, more than 400 fall below the $12.28 standard, according to Sam Maron, a coordinator for the Student Labor Action Project and a member of the task force. The task force was not charged with considering wage levels paid by private contractors -- such as Sodexho, the company that manages UVM's food service, or construction companies -- but the students want UVM to require livable wages on their part, too.

That means, said Isaac Grimm, another student organizer, that UVM should set "a clear policy for what a contractor will live up to before the university will do business with them."

In making these demands, livable wage proponents are fond of citing a local precedent. Burlington's livable wage ordinance applies to both the city's full-time employees and its contractors. The city uses the same Joint Fiscal Office benchmark; if some employees' compensation falls below the standard, it's adjusted upward, said Jonathan Leopold, the city's chief administrative officer.

"I think it has worked well in the city," said Knodell, who is also a city councilor in Burlington. "We have not seen any adverse effects such as layoffs, large tax increases, or service cuts to make it work."

Contact Tim Johnson at 660-1808 or tjohnson@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com. March for livable wage The Vermont Livable Wage Campaign will hold a "March for Livable Wages" today through Burlington:
WHEN: 10:30 a.m.
WHERE: Start at H.O. Wheeler School, 6 Archibald St., Burlington
WHO: The VLWC was created in 1996 by the Peace & Justice Center. Its Web site says the group is a coalition of local living wage activists, non-profit advocacy groups, unions and religious communities dedicated "to ensuring that every Vermonter receives a livable wage or income."
INFORMATION: 863-2345 Ext. 8 or livablewage@pjcvt.org.

© Copyright 2007 Burlington Free Press