Purdue Students, Staff, and Faculty Speak out for a Living Wage

"Purdue Graduate Student Government member Marisa Yerace talks to the crowd at last weeks Living Wage Speakout, photo by Piper Forsen"

45-50 undergraduates, graduate students, staff, faculty, and members of the press gathered at the Purdue Grad Center the afternoon of January 24th for a public speakout in support of a living wage for all workers affiliated with Purdue University.

The speakout was organized by Greater Lafayette Democratic Socialists of America in coalition with AAUP, Graduate Rights for Our Wellbeing (GROW), and Purdue Young Democratic Socialists of America. The Purdue Graduate Student Government signed on as an official sponsor of the event.

The standing-room-only event was primarily attended by grad students, with a sprinkling of undergrads, staff members, and faculty in attendance. The headline speakers included Marisa Yerace of the Purdue Graduate Student Government, Tithi Bhattacharya, professor in the History and Global Studies programs, and David Sanders, West Lafayette City Councillor and professor of Biology. Yerace underlined the precarious position grad students find themselves in, often one unexpected expense away from financial disaster. Professor Bhattacharya focused on the hidden unpaid costs involved in keeping workers alive and able to work day in day out:  time and energy devoted to care work, housework, food prep, are all costs offloaded to the worker, not factored into the wage itself. Sanders argued that the living wage campaign is about returning the university to its public mission to produce knowledge. Currently, he claimed, decision-making at Purdue serves the interests of corporations and the military industrial complex. Sanders also spoke out against the university’s ongoing privatization of key services, exemplified by the recent deal with Aramark to run large parts of the Purdue Memorial Union. Sanders noted that outsourcing lets the university wash its hands of poor wages and working conditions, and isolates workers from one another. All the speakers agreed that collective action bringing together workers at Purdue of all kinds and classifications is the path to winning real change.

After the headline speakers, members of the crowd took the mic to tell their own stories and share their perspectives. Speakers addressed the ongoing housing shortage, exacerbated by the decisions of the University itself to favor private developers. Others spoke about the disrespect shown to grad workers:  one speaker quoted the dean of the graduate school as telling graduate students, “If you want a real wage, you should get a real job.” Other recurring themes included the difficulty or impossibility of supporting a family on a grad student salary, and the consequences this has particularly for women students, who may be tied to a partner in order to meet basic needs. A number of speakers noted that low wages mean only people coming from privileged backgrounds can even afford to invest in a graduate education.

Speakers from GROW, DSA, and AAUP agreed that this effort requires sustained organizing and broad solidarity among people working at Purdue, regardless of classification. DSA member and retired Purdue faculty member Bill Mullen pointed to the graduate student union at Indiana University as a model, noting the significant benefits won there in the wake of the strike last year.

The Living Wage Coalition is a project of GLDSA, AAUP, GROW, and YDSA. The groups have been working together for the past 1-2 years to build awareness and organizational capacity to secure:  a living wage for all workers affiliated with Purdue (equivalent to $15/hr for all workers now and $20 by 2026); grad stipends of 31k now and 41k by 2026; union labor on all Purdue construction jobs; and an end to Purdue’s contract with Aramark. Readers can learn more about the campaign at gldsa.org.

by the Greater Lafayette DSA Executive Committee