PSU Million Student March Highlights Poverty Wages Earned by Campus Workers

by Mark Vorpahl

Students in 100 cities, including Portland, walked out of class and into the streets today as part of the Million Student March. This show of united strength aimed to make their needs heard by a political establishment and a system of corporate higher education that plunges students into a bleak future of massive debt.

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Locally students and their allies gathered on the campus of Portland State University where they listened to the stories and struggles of fellow students, former students who are still in debt and working low-wage jobs despite having degrees, and campus workers earning poverty wages. From there they marched through the streets of downtown to the office of PSU President, Wim Wiewel, and to City Hall to make their demands heard.

1) Tuition-free public college

Until the 1970s and 1980s tuition was free at many public universities. Today, with massive cuts to public funding for education as well as privatization, tuitions are dramatically skyrocketing. This increasingly freezes out all but the most privileged from the degrees they will need for a good future, and saddles them with an un-payable debt. Higher education is a necessity in today’s world. Therefore, it should be viewed as a right and tuition-free public college is the only way to guarantee that this right is available for everyone.

2) Cancellation of all student debt

The total student loan debt is now more than $1.2 trillion, averaging $35,000 per borrower. Not even credit card debt reaches this staggering level. Such a burden not only hurts individual students, it hurts all of our communities because a community can’t prosper unless its members—who worked hard to get a higher education—aren’t weighed down with unfair debt with little available other than poverty wage jobs.

Photo by Malcolm Chaddock
Photo by Malcolm Chaddock

The only ones benefitting from this system of debt are the corporations and 1% who are being let off the hook from paying their fair share towards a public education system that trains their future workers. They should be made to pay and student debt should be eliminated to free up the money currently going to student loan payments to be spent in the economy.

3) A $15 minimum wage for all campus workers

No one who works should live in poverty. The practice of paying poverty wages to those whose labor keeps colleges running is especially at odds with these colleges’ purpose of providing the tools needed to lift up the quality of living for future generations. A $15 minimum wage for campus workers would not only help lift many thousands out of poverty, it would improve their morale, reduce workplace turn over, and increase workers’ motivation without the stressful distractions of needing to make ends meet on too few resources.

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Because these demands address immediate needs that unite students and workers and impact all of our communities, they have immense potential in finding an active echo in the broad public.

Currently these demands are not considered “realistic” by corporate politicians, including those who mouth support for a $15 minimum wage while doing nothing. The only way to make them act is to build a unified social movement powerful enough to make it unrealistic for these so-called leaders to ignore us without serious consequences. When students and workers come together in massive numbers they have the independent power to define what is politically realistic as opposed to the politicians with their cozy and profitable relations with big business.

The Million Student March could prove to be an historic bench mark for the growth of such a movement. But for that movement to become a reality we have to keep working, keep orgnanizing, and keep building.

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