Across the country, the phrase “Fight for $15” is liable to engender passionate debate. The University of Maine employs around 3,200 students. UMaine relies on student labor to support the dining halls, recreation center and numerous services and utilities across campus. Last year, members of UMaine’s “Fight for $15” campaign pushed for a $15 minimum wage for student workers without success. This year many of these students returned to their jobs and are now vulnerable to COVID-19, both physically and economically. This makes the Fight for $15 campaign on campus more important than ever. Student workers are critical to keeping UMaine running, and if the university fails to recognize their value, then it is ultimately to the detriment of the institution.
While Maine has largely avoided the worst of the pandemic, the state continues to suffer from unemployment and underemployment. In June, the Portland Press Herald reported that the University of Maine System Board of Trustees voted to increase tuition by 2.5% for in-state students and 3.1% for out-of-state students citing “a long-planned adjustment for inflation.” According to CollegeSimply.com, 29% of UMaine Students are Pell grants recipients, meaning that they have displayed exceptional financial need. The university’s tuition raise pushes the finish line to be debt-free even further back for those students who already need financial support. This is without talking about the plague of unemployment and underemployment caused by COVID-19, which likely affected many peoples’ incomes. This cuts working-class students particularly deep because their tuition was increased while their wages were not. Not only is UMaine willing to put students’ health at-risk by allowing them to return to campus in the midst of a pandemic, it is willing to charge them even more for it.
Before I go any farther I want to disclose that I stand to benefit from the proposed raise as a student employee for the Maine Campus. While I am satisfied with $12 an hour for the work I do, I am not being required to work on campus. The student workers that are in-person in high traffic areas, however, should be compensated for the risks that they are being asked to take.
Many UMaine faculty members belong to unions, but student staff unions are non-existent. However, student labor organizing on college campuses is not unheard of. In 2002 University of Massachusetts-Amherst Resident Assistants (RAs) organized as a part of the United Auto Workers union (UAW). Full Stop reported that the RAs are still organized and were involved in negotiations in 2019 for “healthcare, meal plans, higher wages, and, crucially, just cause for disciplinary procedures.” UMass Amherst could serve as a regional example of how students can organize to protect their own safety and welfare. Such a strategy could be employed to benefit UMaine’s students in the fight for $15 an hour.
The university’s 3,200 student workers keep the ensure the day to day running of the entire campus going, without them the dining halls, help desks and resource centers are understaffed and unable to adequately help students. The necessity for student employment is created out of mutual need: UMaine needs student labor to ensure that it’s on-campus services function properly, and students need employment to meet their financial needs.
However, UMaine has failed to respect the needs of its student workers. Student wages should have been raised with inflation, just as tuition was. A strong and organized student body may be the only way to ensure a workplace safe from COVID-19 and a tenable wage for student workers. These are the measures that need to be taken by university administrators to show that they respect the struggles of their most vital student population.