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Week of 3.30.07

A Student's Perspective: Tim Bowles on the campus fight for a "living wage"

Tim Bowles at Vanderbilt University
Tim Bowles at Vanderbilt University
Words first spoken at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 remained incessantly in my head when I first became involved with Vanderbilt's living wage movement in fall 2005: "...we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a 'thing-oriented' society to a 'person-oriented' society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered." Martin Luther King, Jr.'s prophetic proclamations are living, breathing and real to me, and they are revolutionary. They require action, and I had to act.

"Vanderbilt desperately needed a radical revolution of values and priorities; its great wealth was leaving hundreds of workers in structural poverty."
As editor of a progressive publication, I had long been involved with progressive causes at Vanderbilt, but Living Income for Vanderbilt Employees (LIVE) was the first action-oriented group I had ever joined. It had the seemingly unattainable goal of a so-called "living wage" for all Vanderbilt employees, 300 of whom were making so little money working full time that they had two and sometimes three jobs. Vanderbilt desperately needed a radical revolution of values and priorities; its great wealth was leaving hundreds of workers in structural poverty. It was a microcosm for our country, where the plantation mentality allows great profits to be made on the backs of millions of low-wage earners.

I joined LIVE at the behest of friends working on the campaign, and while I was initially reluctant to add something else to my plate, it quickly overshadowed my other commitments as a full-time student. I immersed myself in studying labor, unions, contracts, other living wage campaigns, social change and active nonviolence, and most importantly, I attended "clock-ins," where Vanderbilt employees (like housekeepers, groundskeepers, food service workers) clock-in early in the morning. It's the best way to get to know workers, and I met some wonderful people: a married couple who work together as housekeepers, a woman with a huge smile and an even bigger laugh, another woman who seemed plucked straight from South Boston streets—these were the people who made Vanderbilt's low wages real.

College campus The juxtaposition between their lives and the lives of many Vanderbilt students and administrators—including one of the country's highest paid chancellors, Gordon Gee, who earns $1.2 million a year—was stark and grotesque. At a school with so much excess, there are members of the community struggling with every pay check. It's a common theme in our world, but at Vanderbilt I had a unique position as a student to fight the injustice alongside many students, faculty, community members, labor organizers, faith leaders and workers. It's what I did for two years.

We brought the living wage to the forefront of campus consciousness, and everyone knew what the issue was and had an opinion, with nearly three-quarters of Vanderbilt students in favor of a living wage, according to a campus newspaper poll. After editorials, meetings, rallies, and countless individual conversations, we were relieved when Vanderbilt signed an agreement in March 2007 with the union representing Vanderbilt employees that will dramatically increase wages and generally improve working conditions. It's not yet a codified living wage, but it's a step—the first of many.

"Injustices exist in our world only because we allow them to exist through complacency, apathy and feelings of powerlessness..."
Being a part of the movement has been the single most enlightening experience of my college career. I have become empowered, and in turn I have helped others become empowered. It's an extraordinary feeling not to fear the status quo or those who benefit from maintaining it, and when the injustices in our country and the world seem overwhelming in scale and number, it's reassuring to remember that change is possible and that consciences can be awakened.

Injustices exist in our world only because we allow them to exist through complacency, apathy and feelings of powerlessness, and that's a lesson I could never have fully learned in a classroom. While I plan to be pay the bills in the future working as a biologist, the fight for justice to create a 'person-oriented' society will be inextricably bound to my soul.

» Vanderbilt University: Living Wage Campaign