November 5, 2001

Ithacans March For Wage Equity

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Dozens of members of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action, the Cornell Greens, Cornell Democrats and other students joined over 520 Ithaca activists Saturday in an effort to convince the city school board to adopt what Cornell signed last July with 1,100 of its service and maintenance workers: a commitment to providing a livable wage for many of its low-paid workers.

Nearly 55 groups participated in Saturday’s parade, which was organized by the Tompkins County Living Wage Coalition and the Ithaca Paraprofessional Association, a union representing 210 of the Ithaca City School District’s teachers’ aides, teachers’ assistants, family liaisons, bus aides, and security aides. Carrying banners and penny jars, they coursed through Ithaca’s streets from the Southside Community Center to the central pavilion on The Commons. There, music and dances featuring mimes and bongo drums followed speeches by labor leaders and rally organizers.

Debbie Minnick, president of the Ithaca Paraprofessionals Association, said that the starting salaries for paraprofessionals is just $6.72 an hour, “not enough to make ends meet,” noting that many on the bottom rung of the school district’s pay scale have to rely on charity organizations to make it through to the next paycheck.

Last spring, Ithaca’s Alternatives Federal Credit Union published an updated study that calculated a livable salary in Tompkins County at $17,540 a year, or $8.43 per hour for a 40-hour week. The Ithaca Paraprofessional Association is currently negotiating a new contract, demanding $11.50 per hour for a 30-hour week, or a $14,000 salary for ten months, according to Minnick, president of the association.

“It’s ridiculous not to pay people who are caring for our children not enough to live on,” said Hugh Ryan ’00 at the rally, echoing the sentiments of many who demonstrated.

However, the nine-member school board “has been very resistant,” explained Carl Feuer, a member of the steering committee for the living wage coalition, which launched an effort at the beginning of the year to raise wages for paraprofessionals.

“We started [negotiations] at the beginning of January, we came back to the table this fall, but we have not reached an agreement between what they want and what we want. They put an enormous stumbling block in our path [recently],” Minnick said.

Neither labor representatives nor school board members would elaborate on the obstacles faced during contract negotiations. However, by demonstrating at the rally, Minnick said her group would show that “[paraprofessionals] are not going to work for peanuts anymore. We’re there for the children everyday. It’s a sin what we’ve been paid.”

Rally organizers agreed that public support for the livable wage issue is catching on.

“[The contract with Cornell] does give me encouragement — the community is looking to Cornell and what they have done,” Minnick said.

Feuer added, “If we put this to a vote, we would absolutely win. We had a petition drive a few months ago [on the issue] — this is something people grabbed out of your hands to sign.”

Students at the rally were critical of school board members and of Prof. Henry Kramer, industrial and labor relations, in particular. Members of COLA carried glass jars to collect pennies to help Kramer pay the estimated 15 cents increase per $1,000 of property value that livable wages would cost Ithaca residents.

“These people deserve a living wage. The reason they don’t have one is that a small minority [particularly school board members] oppose it. What’s ridiculous is that the people who are most opposed to it are those who are most able to afford it,” said Michael Petela ’02.

Although Kramer and other school board members would not comment on the living wage issue while negotiations are ongoing, Mark Finkelstein ’70, Tompkins County chair of the Republican Party, has appeared with Kramer on public access television shows and has followed the issue.

Finkelstein explained the school board’s motivations for showing hesitance. He noted that lower income residents — some who do not earn a “livable wage” themselves — would have to shoulder the burden of extra taxes, either from direct property tax or from higher rent.

“The goal of the school board is to try to provide good education for students in the most economical way,” Finkelstein said. “[The board] has to keep the interests of lower income taxpayers in mind, and not to pit one group of lower income people against another group [of lower income residents]. It is not the responsibility of the school board to redistribute income to pay above-market wages to one group is to take away from others who have to pay property taxes, and that’s not fair and that’s not what the school board is charged with doing.”

Still, the living wage coalition enjoys broad support in Ithaca, having endorsed Ithaca’s 4th Ward Democratic candidates Carolyn Peterson and Jamison Moore ’04, both present at the rally. Ithaca Mayor Alan Cohen ’81 also made an appearance. Partnership between Cornell and Ithaca activists has helped propel the living wage issue to the forefront of local politics, according to rally participants. Members of the United Auto Workers Local 2300 union, which negotiated a living wage contract with the University, and other Cornell staff and students marched in a show of solidarity for the paraprofessionals.

“We’ll keep fighting until [paraprofessionals] are earning a living wage — it’s a small group of people fighting hard that can really make a change. Having this rally gets the issue out [in public], and gets people to talk about it,” said Lela Klein ’02, COLA member and community liaison.

The living wage coalition is currently focusing on improving earnings for paraprofessionals, a relatively easy target because of their highly unionized workforce, according to Feuer. The group’s goals, however, extend to all Ithacans working at wages which cannot support them, “we’re also committed elsewhere, especially in service [and retail industries], to establish a livable wage whether [employees] are part of a union or not, we’ve just got to figure out how to do it,” Feuer added.

Archived article by Yoni Levine