Our economic system is predicated on a socially constructed reality where we are forced to work in order to live. This places one’s ability to create profit for others at the root of one’s existence, and the well-being of the global economy, above basic human needs.

Profit exists in the gap between the amount of value workers provide and the amount their employers pay them for their work. Thus, the opposing interests of profit gainers and wage earners lie in the mutual claim to economic value. Your wage is the skewed negotiation of this mutual claim. In essence, we are being duped while someone else enjoys the fruits of our labor. This is exploitation.

The workplace benefits that some of us enjoy and most of us take for granted are not the result of business executives waking up on the altruistic side of the bed. Rather, they are the result of over 100 years stained with class struggle.

The insidiousness of our wage system becomes obvious in U.S. Department of Labor documentation: there is no official process for setting the minimum wage. Congress and those who line their pockets arbitrarily decide how much—or how little—we can be paid.

A living wage would allow people to feed, clothe and house themselves. It would enable us to focus less on surviving and more on community organization and social transformation. However, the living wage only maintains the wage system. Thus, the living wage is not the solution; it is a stepping-stone to a truly humane society.

I am not writing from a position of financial comfort. I live off of loans and multiple jobs along with what my parents are able to contribute. I spent an entire summer living and working on research in various nooks on campus because I was homeless.

I have a vivid memory of sleeping in the Sol laundry room and realizing that I was surrounded by thousands of empty beds that I could not afford to sleep in.

Zakary Skinner, a fourth year Multidisciplinary Studies major, is a full-time student and full-time worker at or below the minimum wage with no health insurance or financial support from his family. He works as a dishwasher, a barista and in a back-house position in a restaurant.

“I value the work, but I am not valued,” Skinner said. His jobs require that he relinquish control and autonomy to his manager while constantly moving on his feet without breaks for eight to 12 hours at a time. Skinner said he relies mostly on tips to pay for the basic necessities of life and has to hope that he will make enough each day.

“Being able to engage in higher education is a privilege,” he said. He rushes to complete assignments because he is unable to take the time to fully understand the materials. We both love what we do, but when you have to struggle to survive, writing a paper and turning it in on time is a luxury. This luxury is now out of reach for Skinner, who decided a few weeks after the interview that he will be leaving RIT due to financial difficulty. 

I sat down with Dr. Vincent Serravallo, an expert on social change, labor and sociology of work from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. In our discussion, he pointed out that the Fair Labor Standards Act established the federal minimum wage in 1938, after 50 or more years of labor struggle. He suggested that the concept of a living wage is a societal critique of the failures and inadequacy of the minimum wage to provide people with a level of subsistence.

Skinner recommended that students organize with other low-wage workers on campus. “When students graduate and begin their careers, they will want to organize to demand fair wages and benefits from their employer,” he said. Only through organizing and coming to the bargaining table as a collective do we stand a chance against a CEO or a board of trustees with deep pockets and a bureaucracy at their disposal.

Dr. Serravallo mentioned a two-day public hearing in Rochester that focuses on low-wage work in Rochester. I would encourage you all to attend one of two public hearings being held on Nov. 6 at 5 p.m. and  Nov. 8 at 10 a.m. at the Rochester Public Library.