Hopkins and the living wage

May 20, 1999|By Ben Cashdan

LAST WEEK, community leaders from some of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods called for private employers to follow city government's example by paying a "living wage" to their lowest paid workers and providing health benefits.

Johns Hopkins University should take the lead in such a campaign. Hopkins, the largest private employer in Maryland, has more than 1,000 workers who make poverty wages.

A living wage is defined as one that lifts a family of four above the federal poverty line. In Baltimore, that's $7.70 an hour, which will rise to $7.90 in July.

The Hopkins administration has been dragging its feet on this issue. After three years of protests by students and faculty, Hopkins President William R. Brody recently agreed to increase the pay of part-time workers and those employed by subcontractors to $7.75 an hour over three years.

Dr. Brody should be commended for recognizing the problem and taking action. But his proposal, drawn up without consulting workers, falls far short of a living wage.

The three-year phase-in for the pay raises and a lack of a clear commitment to health insurance or annual cost-of-living increases for the workers, will leave hundreds of families in poverty.

Dr. Brody said the delay in implementing the wage increase was necessary because Hopkins needs time to absorb the higher costs, noting that income from many endowments and other sources is restricted to very specific purposes.

But that doesn't make sense because Hopkins is awash in money. According to the university's annual financial statement, it made a record-breaking $250 million in Wall Street's bull market last year.

So why should it take three years for Hopkins' 1,000 low-paid workers to get raises totaling just $1 million?

The leaders of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a coalition of church and community groups, are right to make the living wage a key local issue. Some 24 percent of Baltimoreans are poor, and more than 36 percent of children in the city are raised in poverty, according to the U.S Census Bureau. These figures are almost twice the national average despite the booming economy in Maryland.

BUILD is rightly aggrieved that the city spent millions on economic development projects last year, mostly in the form of corporate subsidies, and yet many corporations still pay poverty wages. A growing number of working families are among the hundreds who eat at Baltimore's soup kitchens daily.

Johns Hopkins University, which has total assets of $3 billion, receives public funds, mainly state loans or grants, despite its low-wage record.

Although Hopkins' proposal is flawed, it does have symbolic importance. Dr. Brody sent a signal that wealthy employers have a responsibility to their workers. By calling on other employers to follow his lead, Dr. Brody accepted that market wages in Baltimore are unacceptably low for the folks who clean, work as security guards and do so many jobs instrumental to corporate life.

The campaign by Hopkins students, faculty and workers will continue until the university introduces a real living wage based on the concerns of the workers. For a living wage to be meaningful, workers must play a central role in defining its level, the timing of increases and other details.

We hope Dr. Brody will review his decision and implement a more meaningful wage sooner, with worker input. Hopkins' lowest-paid workers cannot ask their landlords or doctors to wait three years for their bills to be paid.

Ben Cashdan, a doctoral student in economic geography, is a member of the Johns Hopkins Student Labor Action Committee, which has conducted protests over the living wage issue for the past three years.

Pub Date: 5/20/99

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