"What do we want? Living wage! When do we want it? Now!" Those were the cries of a group of University of Memphis workers and students crowded near the University Center last Friday. More than 30 people participated in the April 8th rally, organized by several living-wage advocacy groups. Many of those who attended were hourly university employees who earn less than the current standard for a living wage.
Workers are demanding at least $11.62 per hour, which is considered a living wage for each worker in a family with two children, according to a 2010 study by University of Memphis economics professor David Ciscel.
Sandra Walker said she's been working in the university's administration building for 28 years and still makes less than enough to live comfortably.
"I'm not asking to make the big bucks or anything, but the cost of living is going up. Gas prices are going up. It's just killing us," Walker said. "I want my paychecks to be equivalent to 28 years' worth of work."
Walker commutes to work from Tipton County five days a week and spends one of her two monthly paychecks on gas. The rest of her income goes toward bills, she said.
Kyle Kordsmeier, Workers Interfaith Network administrator, said a living wage is one that allows a family of four to live sufficiently.
"It doesn't put them in a middle-class bracket, but it does allow people who work 40 hours a week to live above poverty level," Kordsmeier said.
The Workers Interfaith Network, which co-sponsored Friday's rally, is responsible for helping pass the city's living-wage ordinance in 2006 and the county's ordinance the following year.
Both of those ordinances require local governments to pay its employees and contractors between $10 and $12 per hour, depending on whether or not they receive benefits.
State legislators introduced a bill this session that would prevent local governments from passing similar ordinances.
Tom Smith, organizer of the United Campus Workers-Communications Workers of America (UCW-CWA), compared Friday's living wage rally to Memphis' 1968 sanitation workers' strike.
"The city was telling workers that they wouldn't recognize their union, but they knew that they had human rights to be paid a wage to support their family and be treated with dignity. The same goes for the workers at the University of Memphis," Smith said.
The event's organizers said the turnout was lower than expected. Kordsmeier said many workers were reluctant to participate for fear of retaliation by the university.
"The campus workers definitely have reservations about coming out and rallying, because they fear retribution. They fear losing their jobs," Kordsmeier said.
Merci Decker, a member of UCW-CWA and of the University of Memphis Progressive Student Alliance, spoke at the rally.
"It's as simple as [University of Memphis president] Dr. [Shirley] Raines making the commitment to provide a strategy to raise the universities' living wages," Decker said. "It's going to take some planning, but why not plan for it?"
Just hours after the rally ended, Raines sent a group email to U of M students and faculty about budget adjustment meetings scheduled for April 25th and 26th. The email also stated that Governor Bill Haslam had proposed a 1.6 percent salary increase for teachers and state employees, the first increase in four years.
Engineering major B.T. Thompson said salaried employees with large paychecks should switch positions with those making below the living wage: "Try to pay your bills with their checks. I bet you would be out rallying for a living wage too."