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The Lowdown on Living Wage Campaigns

Local Activism Centered on Pocketbook Issues Is Re-emerging, Especially for ESPs

The following report was prepared by NEA's Collective Bargaining and Member Advocacy (CB&MA) staff to provide members with background on living wage campaigns and NEA's involvement with these efforts.

Defining 'Living Wage'

The term "living wage" describes efforts by workers to increase their compensation to a level above the poverty line.  Generally, a living wage means sufficient wages to pay for basic necessities in a given community.  A living wage campaign is a grassroots effort by employees to win wages that are sufficient to pay for rent, food, utilities, taxes, health care, transportation, and childcare. 

The guiding principle of a living wage campaign is that people who work a full-time job should not have to live below the poverty line. These campaigns hold particular promise for many of NEA's Education Support Professionals (ESPs).  Living wage campaigns involve tactics and strategies that can benefit NEA and its members by providing higher earnings, by increasing membership through both new organizing and internal organizing, by creating a membership more responsive to action, and by mobilizing the membership in support of legislative agendas that benefit ESP members. 


The term "living wage" was coined by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and a coalition of religious leaders from Baltimore, Maryland who successfully launched a campaign in the early 1990's for a local ordinance requiring that city service contractors pay living wages.  With strong community support, the first-ever living wage ordinance was passed by the city of Baltimore in 1994. 

Since then there have been 103 similar ordinances throughout the country.  When this report was written on March 10, 2003, there were 74 living wage campaigns underway. Syndicated columnist Robert Kuttner writing in the monthly magazine, The American Prospect , in 1997 described living wage as " the most interesting (and underreported) grassroots enterprise since the civil rights movement…. Signaling a resurgence of local activism around pocketbook issues."

In today's economic climate and among NEA's ESP members, the most compelling argument for a living wage for public sector workers is the notion that a communities' tax revenues, which are used to pay the wages of public school employees, should not create nor perpetuate poverty.  When employers in the public sector (states, school boards, municipalities, townships, and the federal government) pay wages to working families at a level that results in these employees being eligible for public assistance the employer is not paying a living wage.

"Living wage" is not a concept that is owned by any single organization. The "living wage" concept has been utilized by student groups, political parties, neighborhood associations, women right's groups, and workers rights groups.  Living wage campaigns can be organized by anyone who wishes to advance the interest of working people.  There is no set structure to a living wage campaign.  There are, however, many successful experiences and these can be replicated in different regions of the country.

A living wage campaign can be successful in states with and without public employee bargaining statutes.  In non-statute states, living wage campaigns culminate with an ordinance issued by the school board or local jurisdiction outlining new wage rates.  An example of this type of ordinance is a living wage resolution passed in 2001 by the board of education in Richmond, Virginia. In statute states, living wage tactics become part of a collective bargaining approach (e.g., a contract campaign) that culminates in the successful ratification of a contract:  Ithaca, New York, 2001 which was led by Education Support Professionals-Ithaca; and Baldwinsville, New York, 2002 which was led by the Baldwinsville Education Support Professionals Association.

Three Elements of a Living Wage Campaign:    

1. Determination of the Amount of a Living Wage

The amount determined to be a living wage varies from one region to the next throughout the United States.  Living wage is generally thought of as sufficient earnings to cover basic expenditures, including rent, food, taxes, health care, transportation, childcare, and utilities.  Because the cost of these items varies from city to city, it is impossible to calculate one specific living wage for the entire country.  Research organizations, including the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), conduct research nationwide on the costs of the basic necessities listed above and make these results accessible to the public on their Web sites.

The basis for a living wage can also be gathered from information from local universities or non-profit organizations that work on economic policy issues within a local community.   In Ithaca, New York, NEA's local affiliate used a local credit union, Alternatives Federal Credit Union, to conduct research on what constituted a living wage and to help publicize these findings.   The credit union was known locally, and its members provided substantial community support for the living wage campaign.

2. Organizing Members

A living wage campaign requires extensive membership involvement, which is a significant challenge.   Many members have part-time jobs or family obligations that leave them with little or no time to get involved in union activities.   Throughout the country working people are rising to the challenge and attaining livable wages for their families.

Living wage campaigns begin by identifying the "respected" workers in each building, worksite, shift, and department.   Local association leaders survey the membership and identify "respected" workers.    Members are visited at home and asked to get involved in the process of negotiating a new agreement or policy.  These individuals become the core committee/cadre of the effort and convey information to co-workers and solicit feedback from them as well.  These individuals will participate in bargaining and will eventually present the contract/policy for ratification by the membership.

3. Organizing the Community

Living wage campaigns also require that members of the community, outside the union or local association, become involved.   To build a strong foundation and a strong union, the first place to focus is with the organizations to which NEA members belong. Therefore, community support is often first pursued through churches, temples, and synagogues where members worship. Those congregations are asked to involve other congregations in the effort.   Other support groups such as: AFL-CIO unions, student groups, parent groups, civic groups, political parties, workers' rights groups, typically are also involved.  Communities have responded enthusiastically in support of living wage issues throughout the nation.

NEA Living Wage Successes

NEA has only recently started to promote living wage campaigns.   Already, several important victories illustrate the power of living wage campaigns to raise wages and activate members.  All of the NEA affiliates that have engaged in living wage campaigns have won significant wage increases as a result of their efforts. Some of the most notable are: 

Bargaining units that have utilized these tactics have also seen a large increase in their membership. The cadre/committee of respected workers who were the voice of the membership during the campaign are also the people who approach the non-members and ask them to join the union.   Invariably, non-members feel hard pressed to say no to the co-workers whose opinion they respect and who have just won substantial wage increases for them.  

Most importantly, workers join the union because they feel the pride of the total membership, and they want to be members of a union that is relevant to them. Although New York has an agency fee, all 221 paraprofessionals in Baldwinsville are union members, and all 225 paraprofessionals in Ithaca are union members.  The use of these tactics and strategies by other unions in right-to-work states has maintained membership levels above 90%.

Membership also becomes more responsive to action as a result of living wage campaigns. In Baldwinsville, New York, two candidates for the Board of Education in the most recent election were relatives of ESPs who engaged in the living wage campaign. The local affiliate decided that negotiating a great contract was not good enough, so they attempted to elect Board of Education candidates who understood their issues.  

One of the candidates who won, David Lum, is the son of an ESP member and was 18 years old at the time of his election in 2002. Elected to a full 3-year term, he is the youngest school board member ever in Onondaga County, NY.

NEA Collective Bargaining and Member Advocacy's Activities in support of New Business Item 2002-17

Collective Bargaining and Member Advocacy is working closely with staff from ESP Quality, External Partnerships and Advocacy, and State Affiliate Relations to promote living wage campaigns.  We are developing strategies to aide affiliates participating in living wage campaigns on behalf of ESP members and other low wageworkers. This could include providing information on methods for advocating for living wage policies and contract provisions, training sessions on tools and techniques for effective advocacy, and resources for NEA affiliates engaging in living wage campaigns to assisting with grants during the campaign.

Specifically, NEA staff is engaged in the following activities:

For more information contact Dave Winans, NEA Collective Bargaining & Member Advocacy, at (202) 822-7234 or