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March 30, 2007
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NOW Transcript - Show 313
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Transcript - March 30, 2007

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

There's a radical notion that's been getting a lot of attention lately: It's the concept that- regardless of the job- the pay for a week's work should be enough to live on. The idea of the living wage has been around for about a hundred years, but it's only recently that organized labor has adopted it as a way to bring the working poor into its ranks.

Several cities, like San Francisco and Santa Fe, have already passed living wage laws, and now the campaign is turning to college campuses.

Senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Karla Murthy traveled to Nashville, where the fight for the living wage is playing out at one of the south's most prestigious universities.

HINOJOSA: Dewayne Arbogast and his wife Kathy always look after one another... even at 6:30 in the morning—getting ready for work.

ARBOGAST: My favorite thing about the drive in is the sunrise. Nashville has one of the coolest skylines I think.

HINOJOSA: Dewayne and Kathy both work as custodians at Vanderbilt University. In other words, they're the school's permanent clean up crew.

ARBOGAST: But, it's just the work is so nasty at times. There's some kid that—that—some student or faculty members gets sick and throws up, we got to clean it up. Someone throws stuff on the walls, we got to clean it up. And, people never seem to notice the job we do until we're not doing it.

HINOJOSA: For Dewayne and Kathy, Vanderbilt is more than just a job. It's like a second home. Dewayne has worked as a janitor here for 14 years. Kathy for 12.

ARBOGAST: I admit it, this is my better half

KATHY ARBOGAST: The best half.

HINOJOSA: Last year—Kathy suffered a slight stroke. Since then, she gets tired easily on the job. Dewayne would like her to stay home and rest, but they can't afford it. They make about $8.45 an hour...which means they each take home less then $300 a week.

ARBOGAST: We're just barely gettin' by on that. And that's because we're both workin'. Yeah. And—so it—it's tough

HINOJOSA: But Dewayne and Kathy say they are tired of just "getting by." In the fourteen years Dewayne's been at Vanderbilt, he's gotten only a three-dollar raise. Now, they've decided to fight Vanderbilt for a wage they can live on.

ARBOGAST: If you don't have to holler about a mess, it means we're doing our jobs. If we're doin' our jobs we should be compensated for it. Especially when you've been there as long as we have.

HINOJOSA: It's become a pitched labor battle that's brought together the workers with students and local folks up against Nashville's largest private employer, Vanderbilt University.

Now, wage fights aren't new on college campuses...but perhaps what makes the fight at Vanderbilt stand out are the extremes... on one hand is the university—with a 3 billion dollar endowment and a chancellor who is paid 1.2 million dollars a year. On the other, are their lowest paid workers, the groundskeepers, custodians. dining service workers who say they can barely make ends meet. It's a stark contrast that's fueled the workers' fight for a living wage.

Another early morning and another Vanderbilt employee. Karen Jones has been a custodian there for 10 years. She says the $8.42 cents an hour she makes at Vanderbilt is just not enough to live in Nashville. So she's taken on a second job.

JONES: I be pretty much tired every day. Every day. But it's something I got to do to pay my bills.

HINOJOSA: Karen took on a part time job cooking and cleaning at a day care in the mornings. That's in addition to her full time gig at Vanderbilt.

What would happen if you lost one of your jobs?

JONES: Ooh girl I don't even want to think about that....

HINOJOSA: Karen takes home about $280 from Vanderbilt every week. With her day care job—she brings home an extra $200.. But two jobs means she working from 8 in the morning to 10:00 at night—14 hour days, 5 days a week.

JONES: I think about quittin' all the time. But, they're like, "Karen, don't do it because you've been here ten years." They said, "Do not throw that ten years away." I like, "Man, we need more money, you know?" And it's still like, you know—I might get behind sometime my rent because, you know, the pay—you know?

HINOJOSA: Michael Schoenfeld is a spokesman for Vanderbilt University.

SCHOENFELD: We have—a number of employees at the—at the lowest end of the—of the—pay scale. These are individuals who, again, perform very valuable, very important service functions on the campus. And the wages reflect the—the marketplace for the—certainly the Nashville marketplace for those kinds of positions.

HINOJOSA: Dewayne Arbogast says the $8.45 cents an hour he makes might be the market rate, but it doesn't mean it's a fair wage.

ARBOGAST: It's this mentality of, "Well, I don't wanna have to pay any more than I really have to." And—and they tend to deal with the workforce as a commodity rather than actual people with families and lives.

FAIRES: You know, we can sit around and talk for years about the need for a living wage, but there are people that can't afford to buy their groceries every month. So for the people who are working at Vanderbilt it's an urgent issue

HINOJOSA: Diane Faires and Tim Bowles are students at Vanderbilt. They belong to a group called "Living Income for Vanderbilt Employees." The group was formed in 2002—when students heard about a living wage battle at Harvard. They wondered if those same problems existed on their own campus.

BOWLES: Everything else at Vanderbilt seems so perfect. The campus is almost ... it's almost a paradise within Nashville. But to know that here at Vanderbilt, at my own school, those problems were being perpetuated, I mean, that was ... that was a huge shock.

HINOJOSA: Their activism started from the ground up. So the first thing they did was to just meet the workers, face to face.

BOWLES: Say you were ... you saw a groundskeeper. Or a housekeeper ... a lot of these people wouldn't even make eye contact with you. It was as if there was this culture of subservience, something like that, this ... this atmosphere of fear. And that, I think, is ... is on its way out.

FAIRES: A lot of times the workers are worried about losing their jobs if they speak up, but for the students, we're really free to speak up for what we believe in without so many institutional constraints or fear of losing our job.

HINOJOSA: The students began holding rallies and letter writing campaigns. But they also did their homework.

Back in 2005, using local government statistics, they calculated what a living wage would be in Nashville. For a family of four with 2 working adults—they came up with $10.18 an hour.

But Michael Schoenfeld says that calculating a living wage is not a perfect science.

SCHOENFELD: I have economists at Vanderbilt who—will argue passionately one side, I have distinguished economists at Vanderbilt who will passionately argue the other side. Now, if there was—if there was a strong consensus about—what a living wage was and what it should be, that would be one thing.

HINOJOSA: But what the university does offer, says Schoenfeld are some of the best benefits around.

All full time employees—from the chancellor to the custodians can choose from multiple health insurance plans. They can use the school gym. And Vanderbilt even offers to pay up to $23,000 per child for college tuition, for any school in the country.

Some workers say though, all those great benefits don't put food on the table or pay the rent.

The workers wanted more pay. But how? The union that represented them on campus was weak. In past contract negotiations, they hadn't been able to get better wages.

Dewayne Arbogast is one of the union stewards.

ARBOGAST: Well, when I first started out talkin' to people about the union when they asked question, they were very fearful because they were afraid of losin' their jobs.

HINOJOSA: Keep in mind—Tennessee is a right to work state - so unions aren't a big part of the workforce here.

ARBOGAST: They'd say, "Well, the union hasn't done a thing up to now, so why should we be part of it?" And I had to explain to them that the union couldn't do much because the membership was so low. We didn't have the numbers.

HINOJOSA: The workers contract was coming up for negotiation in the fall of 2006. So the union began recruiting workers in earnest—to fill their ranks in time for the negotiations. They even lowered union dues so the low wage workers could afford to join.

Meanwhile—the students were working on their own strategy...

FAIRES: We thought it was really important to call attention to the issue as the contract negotiations were in progress so that if there was going to be any pressure on the university in those negotiations, that was the time to do it.

HINOJOSA: Instead of more rallies and protests, the students wanted to try a different line of attack —an economic one. They asked the university for a detailed analysis of how implementing a living wage would affect the school's budget. Could it make economic sense? The students say they pressed the university for answers, but they got no response.

BOWLES: This isn't a whim that we have, this isn't that we want a new coffee shop on the campus or something like that.

HINOJOSA: Frustrated, the students took matters into their own hands.

FAIRES: Excuse me, I am sorry to interrupt...

HINOJOSA: A group of students joined by community activists disrupted a trustees meeting attended by the chancellor, Gordon Gee. There was no sit in or a building take over... instead—the students demanded facts and research.

BOWLES: We want numbers and we want that in the form of a cost analysis. You decision makers have the power to enact that cost analysis today and that is all we are asking for today.

HINOJOSA: The chancellor agreed to meet with them the next day. But, the students say they never got the answers they were looking for.

By now, the fight was also making headlines, putting the chancellor's salary and the school's 3 billion dollar endowment in the spotlight.

HINOJOSA: You've got $3 billion of an endowment at Vanderbilt—

SCHOENFELD: Uh-huh.

HINOJOSA: —and therefore money should not be an issue when you're talking about these low wage workers.

SCHOENFELD: Well let's have a—let's have a little bit of endowment 101. Virtually all of that money is designated by the donor. So while it is very compelling to think that the Chancellor has a safe in his office in which there's $3 billion. The reality, is the—that is not the—the—the piggy bank that—people like to think it is. Is it—does it present a difficult public perception issue? Of course.

HINOJOSA: The students thought so too. So they focused on getting the story out—not just on campus—but to the wider Nashville community. They reached out to the union, community leaders, faith leaders, even faculty and alumni—and they formed a coalition called the Vanderbilt community alliance.

MEGHAN: WE ARE THE VANDERBILT COMMUNITY ALLIANCE!! VCA TODAY!!

HINOJOSA: Vanderbilt employs around 20,000 people in the area. With so many people tied to the school, the VCA decided essentially to embarrass the university. They ran ad campaigns profiling the workers. They also had workers speak at churches.

SEAVEY: Since so many people here went to school at Vanderbilt or work at Vanderbilt in a variety of ways, there was an immediate connection for a lot of people here.

HINOJOSA: Dewayne Arbogast came to speak at this church just a few miles from campus.

SEAVEY: People were just, again, shocked that here's this man who's worked there for 13 years or 14 years, and he was earning under $9 an hour. People just couldn't believe it....

HINOJOSA: Many members of the church who were also Vanderbilt alumni signed a letter urging the chancellor to act... the pressure was mounting.

By January 2007, the negotiations between the school and the union had stalled.

That's when the actor Danny Glover came to town.

GLOVER: Hello, how you doin?

HINOJOSA: Glover is also a labor activist. The union wanted him wanted to meet with the workers and to use his celebrity status to bring some media attention to their fight.

BROWN: Maybe we'll get something done. You think so?

GLOVER: Well I think so. But You're the ones who are going to get it done- I'm here to support you in whatever way I can and to be a part of this and to let you know that I'm on your side

GRANT: Thank you so much...

HINOJOSA: Glover came to this homeless shelter—where one of Vanderbilt's full time workers, Mary Hampton, stayed for a few months with her 2 kids.

HAMPTON: It's not like I didn't have a job and became homeless. I have a job and been on this job for nearly two years. And it was not enough money to make it. I ended up here.

GRANT: Was told this morning that if I came here and spoke, I probably wouldn't have a job. That kind of hurts. But what hurts worse is that I'm still there working and not being paid for what I'm worth.

GLOVER: You're only asking that you be paid and that you be paid honorably and that you would be respected. That's what you're asking for. That the work that you do has value.

HINOJOSA: Vanderbilt would not allow Glover to speak with workers on the clock—so he was brought to this parking lot during a shift change.

GLOVER: What's happening in Vanderbilt is representative of what's happening around the country in a lot of ways. 'Cause people are talking about a living wage. Not just the minimum wage.

HINOJOSA: When you walk away, what do you want to leave them with? Besides the fact that they met a movie star?

GLOVER: The fact that they're not alone in this. They're not alone in this fight. That I support you. Now I've been to places where people didn't even know who I was. But the fact that I was there, at that moment, with them, meant that I cared about them.

HINOJOSA: A week later—the union negotiators were huddled in a hotel conference room. A federal mediator had been brought in to force the 2 sides into an agreement. By this time, the union had been able to double their membership.

It took some marathon negotiating, but earlier this month, the union and Vanderbilt finally hammered out a new contract.

FARNER: I appreciate everybody for coming out tonight...

HINOJOSA: In the end, it was a compromise. The workers would not immediately get the living wage calculated by the students. Instead, their wages will increase over 20 months. So, by next year, Dewayne Arbogast and Karen Jones will see their wages go up to $10.00 an hour.

The union presented the agreement to the members for a vote. And it passed, two to one.

HINOJOSA: Before the agreement with the union, would you say that Vanderbilt was under paying some of its lowest wage earners?

SCHOENFELD: I—I don't—I think the—the—the phrase, "underpaying"—in a market economy is probably not particularly accurate or valid. I—I would say that—we are—we were keeping up with the market. And under this new agreement, we are now exceeding the market.

HINOJOSA: It's Friday night. Karen Jones has just finished her 14 hour day.

JONES: I am tired

HINOJOSA: She'll now have a little more money in her pocket.

Dewayne Arbogast says, that extra money might not seem like much to some people, but to him, it means a lot.

ARBOGAST: People started out bein' very fearful. But then where—with Vanderbilt's attitude and a lot of their arrogance, people were stop bein' so scared and they start bein' angry. We have our home here, And this right here—I know it doesn't look like much, but this is our slice of the American pie. And I'm fightin'—we're both fightin' to hold on to it. And the only way we can do that is to make sure Vanderbilt keeps paying us adequately.

BRANCACCIO: The on-campus theme continues with a young man on a mission. He wants colleges and universities to use their influence to make the world a better place. It's about practical things like conserving energy on campus. It's also about big financial things—ways that colleges and universities can use their enormous investment clout to promote what's called "sustainability"—that is, meeting society's needs without wrecking the earth and its residents in the process.

Sustainability is the rallying cry of Mark Orlowski. Less than three years out of Williams College in Massachusetts, Orlowski runs a non-profit called the sustainable endowments institute. He gives out letter grades rating how "green" colleges are... and he travels around Checking on how they're using their endowments—the big investment portfolios colleges have accumulated, sometimes measured in the hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.

BRANCACCIO: You've looked into this. How sustainable are those endowments?

ORLOWSKI: Well, what we found on our report card David, is that most universities and colleges don't look at issues of investment priorities relating to sustainability. Furthermore, many don't even disclose basic information about where the endowment is invested.

BRANCACCIO: You—you call up, or you start to look online, and you can't find out in some cases?

ORLOWSKI: That's right, we found that two thirds of schools don't provide even basic information about where the endowments are invested.

BRANCACCIO: But—so I understand better, from the ones that do tell you, what are you looking for?

ORLOWSKI: What we're looking for is a commitment to being an active shareowner. Owning investments and making your voice heard as an investor in these companies. So, every year there's annual shareholder meetings. Sort of like annual elections in our political system.

What we found is—the vast majority of schools don't take those votes into consideration. And don't have systems on campuses that handle the voting process.

BRANCACCIO: So, you're saying the—the colleges in many cases are not using their enormous financial clout. Some of these endowments are worth billions. Enormous financial clout to pressure the companies they own to act more sustainably.

ORLOWSKI: That's right. There's about 350 billion dollars in college and university investments. But, only a small—cross-section of the universities actually take these votes into consideration.

BRANCACCIO: When I was your age—the big issue was divestment in Apartheid South Africa.
I just assumed that movement just continued into other things. Like for instance, the environment. Not quite?

ORLOWSKI: Not quite David. Really what we're seeing today is a very different investment strategy that universities and colleges are taking, compared to what happened in the 70's and 80's. Today universities and colleges are much more diversified in global portfolios and hire many more money managers who have then in turn pick investments.

So, schools don't have as much of a direct say in where and how the endowments are being invested. Now that said, there are tremendous opportunities to affect change relating to sustainability and other environmental—and social issues. Through leveraging the investments in terms of shareholder voting.

BRANCACCIO: But you gotta turn on the students to ask for this.

ORLOWSKI: Exactly, students are showing interest and are showing enthusiasm for this idea. There are more schools coming—coming around to this idea, just in the past year in Middlebury College joined a growing group of institutions. They are actively voting on these shareholder resolutions.

But, still many institutions don't vote. Take schools such as Tufts University, a prime example of a real leader at the national level on sustainability. Whereas they don't have any policies or programs on active shareholder voting, or on transparency. So, you can't even find out where the 800 plus million dollar Tufts endowment is invested.

BRANCACCIO: So Mark goes out on the road to rally students, professors and college administrators to push their campuses to get on the sustainability stick.

This is the Rocky Mountain Sustainability Summit in Colorado. Mark's got questions: what companies are in your college's stock portfolio? What do you know about the environmental or human rights record of those companies? Your university is a shareholder, meaning an owner. Ever considered some shareholder pressure to make those companies buy more wind power or stop doing business with repressive governments overseas?

BRANCACCIO: So people who see it this way, you gotta pursue just raw profits. And not get involved in these mushy social issues. You see that as—as a false dichotomy.

ORLOWSKI: Yeah, I do. Because if you're not looking at those areas, you're negligent in how you're managing your corporation. And as a result, universities and colleges as investors are—are not benefiting from the long-term planning that the corporations could be doing when it comes to climate change and other issues.

BRANCACCIO: You know, sometimes these days the word sustainability is poured over everything like ketchup. I mean, it's—it's there on every food. But, no one really understands what it means. What are you talk—you're talking about global warming?

ORLOWSKI: Well, certainly David we're talking about global warming. But, we're also talking about issues much broader than that. Relating to basic resource consumption in this country and around the world. Looking at how the generations of today are using resources. And assuring that there's enough for generations in the future.

BRANCACCIO: And some people would conclude that if the colleges and universities aren't doing it. And what big institutions are? You think they'd be the first.

ORLOWSKI: Well, we've been pretty encouraged by the amount of activity on campus sustainability efforts looking at green building and energy efficiency, as well as local and organic food use in the dining halls. But, the endowment side was really lacking the—the campus side.

And so we have a disconnect in many cases, where schools aren't connecting the dots between the campus sustainability's practices they already have implemented. And what they could be doing with their endowments.

BRANCACCIO: Mark I gotta ask you something, what are you like 24 years old?

ORLOWSKI: Yeah, I'm 24 David.

BRANCACCIO: So, a smart guy like you could have gone out of Williams College where you attended, and gone straight to Wall Street, it strikes me, and had the ability to earn a Porsche 911 Targa by Christmas. Yet you're toiling away in the non-profit sector on these social issues? What went wrong?

ORLOWSKI: Well David, I really feel it's critical to tackle these issues of climate change and—and other matters that are before us. And while I could have potentially tried to do that on Wall Street, I felt my—my largest impact would be in the non-profit sector. Doing research and raising awareness about sustainability and how it relates to investments.

BRANCACCIO: Mark, thank you very much.

ORLOWSKI: My pleasure David.

BRANCACCIO: Mark Orlowski is Executive Director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute.

You can find Mark's sustainability report card, over on our website pbs.org is the place to start.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. See you next week.



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