Fight for a Fair Wage: Part I

“Workers’ Rights and the CC Dream”

by Han Sayles

“The past is always a rebuke to the present . . . History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.”
— Robert Penn Warren

Ten years ago, the minimum staff salary at Colorado College was $6.92 per hour. A 2002 survey from Sociology Professor Jeff Livesay’s Inequality course revealed that 78 percent of the staff felt they were being inadequately compensated for their work. Approximately 50 percent of the staff reported experiencing economic hardships such as worrying about food, inability to pay for housing and an inability to afford health care. Yes, this was at CC— not such a magical bubble for some. 

It wasn’t until 2003 that CC adopted a self-sufficient base wage of $9.64 per hour. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Colorado College Fair Labor (CCFL), a group of extremely dedicated CC students, CC became the first institution in the country to adopt a self-sufficient wage. 

Colorado defines the term “self-sufficiency” as “the income needed to realistically support a family, without public or private assistance.” This is in contrast to market-based wages, which aim not to overpay workers but to maintain a slightly competitive edge over minimum wage. CCFL fought for basic rights for our staff so that they could avoid relying on food stamps and charities to sustain themselves and their families. 

The CCFL’s efforts began in 2001, but it wasn’t until 2002, after the students put together a 17-page document titled Workers’ Rights and the Colorado College Dream, that the administration took the CCFL seriously. The document catalogued the egregious economic struggles experienced by many employees on campus. Sodexho— a national corporation known for unfair treatment of their employees— came to CC’s campus in an attempt to slander the CCFL’s reputation since the allegations made by CCFL were scandalous, and all completely true. Regardless of the efforts led against them, the CCFL continued building student support by gathering evidence from Sodexho employees to demonstrate the injustice happening on campus.

For two years the CCFL met every day and afterconstant advocacy they put together a 10-page report with Labor Practices Committee including a recommendation that the college adopt a $13.05 per hour wage based off of a self-sufficient chart that projected the cost of living for a single adult and a single child in the El Paso area. Then CC President Dick Celeste— who had just recently come into office—didnot take the recommendation to adopt the one-adult/one-child model, but he did endorse the hugely enhanced wage of $9.64, which followed the two-adult/two-child family budget model from 2003, a $2.50 per hour increase. 

The CCFL gained national recognition after this apparent reform and success. Academe magazine asked Jeff Livesay to publish an article on the movement, and he wrote with confidence that their success would continue to affect change at the college. “There’s more to be done but thanks to the cooperative efforts of many people, there’s a sense that progress can now come more easily than it has in the past.” 

After their campaign, the CCFL published a 16-page document directed at future CC activist groups. The document, still available on the CC website, catalogues all of their successes and trials. Reading through the document, it is evident that the CC community we know today isn’t all that different than it was 10 years ago. Below is an excerpt describing the conditions of the student body, administration and past labor activism in 2002, as characterized by the CCFL in their report:

Student Body: “CC has a very vocal activist community, especially around environmental issues. Traditional leftist groups . . . attract little attention except to the extent that they provide free alcohol or cultural entertainment. The dominant undercurrent within the student body is feel-good apathy.” 

Administration:  “ . . . generally comfortable with the same status quo and want to avoid the work and hassle associated with change . . . the administration fears that all their pet projects will be ruined if the trustees refuse to approve a budget with too much spending.” 

On Past Labor Activism: “ . . . a tendency for groups to point out a problem and throw it in the administration’s lap, saying ‘you deal with it now.’” 

In their document, the CCFL uncovered potent truths and provided ways to mobilize a sentiment of self-sufficiency, all articulated clearly for students like us to read and revitalize.

For those of you who don’t have time to mill though the 16-page document, the CCFL left our campus with a bullet list of all the things they think they did right. Ten years later, it is now the perfect time for us to remember exactly how they achieved self-sufficient wages for CC staff, because this story hasn’t ended with the gift they passed on to us. 

Fast-forward 10 years: CC is back where we started with market-based wages for our lowest earning staff; self-sufficiency has basically been forgotten.