Verbum Ultimum: Common Cents

Dartmouth finally gave up on denying student dining workers fair pay. It should read the writing on the wall and fairly compensate other student workers too.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 2/24/23 4:00am

by Sophie Bailey / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Within 24 hours of the vote to strike by the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth, news broke that the College had suddenly changed its mind on the union’s package proposal and verbally accepted it. Let that sink in. After all the time and lawyers’ fees wasted on stalled negotiations, which began all the way back in May 2022, all it took was one email threatening a strike for the house of cards to tumble down. The outcome sure seems inevitable, at least in retrospect.

After SWCD’s success, we are left wondering: What comes next for all of our other student workers? Currently, SWCD only represents student dining workers — meaning countless others do not have the same extent of protection. And we are not just talking about undergraduate students: Graduate students are also unprotected by a union — although they are working on changing that — leaving them out to dry when advocating for just compensation. Dartmouth’s minimum wage for student workers is abysmal: undergraduate pay has an $11.50 per hour minimum and Ph.D. students receive a minimum stipend of $35,196 — with plans to increase to $40,000 by July 2023.

According to the Graduate Organized Laborers at Dartmouth’s Instagram, graduate student stipends are so low relative to the cost of living in the Upper Valley that many report spending 50% or more of their income on rent — far exceeding the 30% rule commonly advised by financial planners. As the SWCD made clear in their 11-point case for fair pay, many undergraduate workers must work multiple jobs in addition to studying to make ends meet for them and their families — who we must not forget often depend on their earnings — because wages are so low.

There are two ways in which we can determine what wages and stipends should be. One option is to explore what students’ time is worth, and another is to look at metrics defining a ‘livable wage’ here in Hanover. Regardless of which standard you use, the conclusion is clear: Students are compensated far below what they should be for the essential labor they provide to the College.

Paying students less than their time is worth is an affront to their dignity. That being said, we recognize that the exact value of an hour of a student’s time is hard to quantify. It would require valuing the alternatives to working, such as an hour of studying or participating in some extracurricular activity. We obviously do not have access to such data — but we do have access to the minimum wages at peer colleges, which can serve as a rough proxy. We collected data from six of the seven other Ivy League schools plus Bowdoin, Middlebury and Bates Colleges. The University of Pennsylvania does not provide an undergraduate student minimum wage and was thus excluded from this comparison. We found that the average minimum wage at these schools was about $13.92. Harvard offers $15 an hour and some other schools approach that rate — Yale University plans to increase its minimum wage to $15 this spring. Out of these nine peer institutions, Dartmouth has the lowest minimum student wage.

Even if you pretend there isn’t a case for students to be paid for the value of their time — and we absolutely think there is — Dartmouth is still underpaying students compared to its peer institutions. We see absolutely no reason why Dartmouth students’ time might be somehow worth less than the time of students at peer schools.

The other way of looking at the issue is through the lens of a livable wage. After all, a large proportion of student workers work not because they just want some extra spending money but because they need the funds to live. When those students must trade away so many of their hours just to get by, they are put at a huge disadvantage compared to their peers, both academically and socially. The least the College can do is ensure students are compensated fairly so that they can pay their bills without undue burden. The College’s financial aid programs simply do not cover the full breadth of what students need.

The livable wage based on cost of living metrics here in Hanover for an individual without children in Hanover is about $22.82. Dartmouth’s minimum undergraduate wage is $11.50. Let that sink in. In other words, Dartmouth’s student minimum wage is about half of what someone needs to be able to afford to live here. Let that sink in. A livable wage just means getting by — no one gets rich off of a livable wage. While none of the peer schools we referred to earlier have a minimum wage equal to the living wage for their location, few are as far below it as Dartmouth is. As the SWCD made clear, raising student worker compensation would be a miniscule expense compared to the College’s overall budget — meaning its affordability to the College is not up for debate.

We are glad to hear that the College has announced its intention to review pay scales for student workers in the coming weeks. We hope they see the light, avoid costly and wasteful future strife and simply raise wages to something reasonable for all. While we recognize that dining work is particularly demanding and it is therefore unrealistic to expect all student workers to be paid at the same rate that SWCD recently earned, the status quo is simply embarrassing. 

We also urge the College to ensure that graduate students receive sufficient stipends and support to meet their needs. Graduate students are an integral part of our community and it is wrong for them to get anything less than what they need. We were very disappointed to hear of the College’s denial of voluntary recognition to the GOLD. We were even more disappointed to hear Provost David Kotz parrot the overused, tired and misleading anti-union rhetoric which employers often use to try to convince workers that unions are somehow against their interests. His claim that “collective bargaining may slow down individualized response to situations that arise and would introduce additional cost, time, and bureaucracy to a system that is already working efficiently” is especially laughable. If that were anywhere near true, no one would want to unionize. The system only works efficiently for the College, not students. The College should feel embarrassed that they are grasping at straws in this manner. 

Soon enough, a vote will be held likely confirming what we already know — that graduate students overwhelmingly support the union. 70% of them have already signed cards saying so. If history repeats itself, they will then try to negotiate a contract and maybe threaten to strike, and the College will likely cave — as they did with the SWCD once they realized there was no other way out. The only thing the College wins in this game is a delay of the inevitable for a few months.

In order to prevent this avoidable situation from ever happening again, we further urge the College to tie the student minimum wage and graduate student stipends to annual inflation. That way, adjustments are automatic and predictable. Not only is this good for students, but it’s also good for the College — it both prevents the bad press that would accompany future labor showdowns and allows for predictable expenses for the College’s accountants.

Finally, if the College will not raise student compensation sufficiently on a voluntary basis, we urge it to voluntarily recognize other unions that might form and to continue to refrain from any violations of the right to unionize as established under federal law. Doing so would likely result in heavy penalties for the College, as other employers like Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and Amazon are finding out the hard way while their shortsighted union-busting tactics work their way through the courts. 

Fair compensation for student workers is the right thing to do, and it’s the most likely outcome, too. The sooner and smoother we get there, the better — for all of us.

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