‘Eight is great but twelve is better!’ was among the favourite slogans of cleaners who campaigned for a living wage at the elite William and Mary college in Williamsburg, America, in 2001. Their main objective was better pay and more respect. Their student and faculty staff allies, on the other hand, were framing their demands in terms of economic justice and human rights.
Despite these differences, “the term ‘living wage’ seemed to carry resonance across class and race differences”, write Jennifer Bickham Mendez and James O’Neill Spady in a study of the campaign.
Students and faculty staff, while having made at least one painful mistake, by and large seem to have been quite successful at making cleaners run the campaign. For example, students and faculty staff spoke to the press during the early stages of the campaign, but later this role was taken over by the cleaners.
The college being located in a very conservative, anti-union state made campaigning difficult. Nevertheless, some 2,700 signatures on petitions, rallies, candlelight vigils and a noisy picket brought about substantial wage increases. Ironically, low-level supervisors at first did not benefit, although they had been among the most active campaigners.
The somewhat loose coalition did not prove sustainable, and instead a union local was formed. The local turned out to be quite bureaucratic, which at first had a demobilising effect on both workers and their allies. Bickham Mendez and Spady suggest that the local Justice with Jobs coalitions may provide lessons regarding better ways to create durable structures without sacrificing rank-and-file mobilisation.
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