The Macalester chapter of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MacPIRG) is leading a campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 for all workers at Macalester.
MacPIRG announced its intention with a change.org petition launched Feb. 6 that demands a livable wage for all employees contracted or subcontracted with the college and increased financial transparency from its administration.
Currently, Macalester – because it is a private college – is not obligated to make any of the information regarding their contracts with vendors public.
But MacPIRG believes that Macalester should be held to the standards designed for public institutions are under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). They want students to have access to FOIA-style request forms for specific information on the school’s private financial relationships with vendors like Bon Appétit.
In a statement to The Mac Weekly, Vice President of Administration and Finance David Wheaton, Associate Vice President Patricia Langer and Director of Employment Services Bob Graf wrote that they consider Macalester to be largely financially transparent. They also noted that vendors often demand confidentiality in the “competitive aspects” of their contract.
For MacPIRG – which is targeting the terms of these contracts – this opacity is frustrating.
“Macalester doesn’t have to reveal information,” MacPIRG co-chair Russell Fillmore-Brady ’18 said. “They are pretty stingy about [it]. It’s very difficult to get a straight answer. Nearly impossible.”
The administrators, in their statement, committed only to the idea that “engaging in discussions to fully understand perspectives of all parties impacted by a decision is certainly in line with Macalester’s values.”
But they also wrote that any increase in wages would likely be compensated for by the college.
This could include “modifications to other employees[’] compensation, reallocating funds from department[s] or building maintenance budgets increasing tuition, room & board cost to students, or other steps.”
Another MacPIRG request is that Macalester include a student or other third party to observe contract negotiations with Bon Appétit next spring. While not directly involved in deliberation, this individual would serve as a watchdog for the process.
On this point too, the organization and administration differ. Wheaton, Langer and Graf would only commit to carrying “the needs and values” of the college into the renegotiation process.
Over the coming year, MacPIRG aims to rally students behind the idea that Macalester is complicit in an economic system that disadvantages people of color, women and the working class at large.
“Within the broader scope of the campaign is an idea that Macalester participates in a lot of unethical labor practices,” Fillmore-Brady said. “Just because it’s worse in other places doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen here.”
As activist groups on campus often do, MacPIRG warns that the liberal reputation of Macalester is hanging in the balance: should it refuse to commit to a campus-wide $15 minimum wage, it will face outrage from the student body.
The threat of popular outrage, however, might be overstated.
In spring 2015, Macalester College Student Government signed a “Resolution to Address Income Inequality at Macalester College”, that, in addition to commiting to lower the income inequality gap to 18:1 by 2020, also resolved to raise the minimum wage of subcontracted workers to $14.17 – the guaranteed wage of those employed directly by the college.
But the Income Inequality Commission, formed to oversee and ensure the success of the resolution, while it still has MCSG-appointed members, has not met in several years.
On Feb. 9, MacPIRG members dropped off the first 100 signatures on their petition on the desk of Langer on the third floor of 77 Mac.
The group announced that it plans to return to 77 Mac each time its petition garners 100 more signatures. As of Wednesday, 179 people have signed.
“The only way that this will really be successful is by getting a lot of student support,” MacPIRG co-chair Jessi-Alex Brandon ’20 said. “If we emphasize that the Macalester community is serious about this $15 minimum wage, is serious about transparency between Macalester and its workers… then we have a higher chance of our demands actually [being met].”
MacPIRG faces other daunting challenges as well. One centers around how to communicate with the subcontracted workers that its campaign is trying to represent.
“It’s obvious that we need to bring workers into this because we don’t want to misrepresent them or speak for them in any way whatsoever,” Brandon said. “But we also don’t want to do that while jeopardizing their job.”
MacPIRG plans to talk to Bon Appétit management and other companies subcontracting with Macalester, though they have not done so yet.
MacPIRG wants to hold an open forum on the status of labor on campus – including both the conditions of labor and the policies that govern it. That event is currently scheduled for the week following spring break this year, but as of The Mac Weekly’s press time, the group had not yet set a specific date or location.
The 15 at Mac campaign comes within the context of a much larger livable wage movement in the Twin Cities. On June 31, 2017, Minneapolis passed a minimum wage ordinance requiring all employers in the city to pay minimum wage workers $15 per hour by 2024.
In addition, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter – elected last November – supports the implementation of a similar city-wide $15 minimum wage.
MacPIRG hopes that the energy driving the minimum wage movements in the cities will set the campaign on Macalester’s campus ablaze.
“It’s a long time coming,” Brandon said. “We’re determined to be much more serious and successful about it.”