The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.
The following testimonial comes directly from a service worker at Princeton University, presenting an authentic sentiment of inadequate financial support and an uncaring institution; it is just one of many voices of frustration and despair on this campus. It has only been edited for clarity:
“My salary is not enough for a single father with two kids. I can not afford to [pay for] rent and utilities, [not to mention] car fuel and maintenance… I literally have to choose if I’m going to have breakfast or lunch most days ’cause the price of food is high and I can’t afford to eat both meals most days… I’m asked by office staff if I have plans for a summer vacation; I can’t even treat myself to McDonald’s, so a vacation is just a dream. The small 2% or 3% raises we get are always erased [by] the annual 3% raise we pay for health insurance. I have been working for Princeton for a little over 3 years, and my salary has gone up by less than 800 dollars for the year… I left a job that paid me significantly more, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to work for what I thought at the time was a world-class university. I have come to realize that it’s smoke and mirrors and Princeton wants to pay us middle to low-end of the scale and expect to be talked about in the same breath as Harvard, [but] Harvard facilities operations [get] paid higher [than] we do here. So maybe Princeton should lower their view of [themselves] until they truly start acting like the prestigious university that they are.”
Our service workers are vital to the University community, yet paradoxically exist in a space disparate from it: a space in which their concerns and fears aren’t important enough for the University to accommodate them. While the University offers legitimately helpful benefits including healthcare, childcare, and retirement funds, which are genuinely appreciated by workers, a survey of over 100 union workers on campus – conducted by the Princeton Chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) – tells us that they are simply not enough. Instead, the ostensibly meaningful benefits mask the impacts of low wages on those that need to pay for rent, a car, or even just food for their kids.
While the University helps faculty and students thrive, workers are left to the wayside – as one campus worker described, the administration “doesn’t really care what we are facing on [a] daily basis.” Princeton should no longer brush these issues aside. It must take these concerns seriously and commit to supporting its service workers with meaningful compensation.
While the cost of living has increased month over month all across America for the past two years, many Americans have felt left behind by the corporations that employ them. These employers have offered meager raises to pacify their workers while annual costs of living have skyrocketed by 8 percent and even 12 percent in some states, and many corporations are raking in record profits in an economy that is failing to support its essential workers.
Princeton, disappointingly, is following these trends. According to the survey, despite requests from workers to be fairly compensated under the cost of living increases in New Jersey (which stand around 8 percent), Princeton acts as if circumstances have not changed, offering minimum pay increases below inflation and the cost of their benefits to unionized workers. In other words, our employees are effectively seeing their wages decline.
In the survey, workers detailed the extent of the deep financial issues they face which Princeton must make an effort to remedy. Many of the responses mentioned general cost of living hardships in New Jersey and Princeton saying, “fuel cost + mortgage / rent is unattainable for my union brothers / sisters,” “I have problems paying my bills and paying for food,” and “I can’t afford anything but the bare minimum.” Cost of living increases along with Princeton’s disgracefully low wages have created unacceptable conditions for many of our most valuable and essential workers. However, beyond these already appalling day-to-day living situations, some workers described absolutely devastating stories due to the lack of financial support from Princeton. Among the most heartbreaking comes from a worker who was forced to sell his home to afford rising expenses: “[I had] to sell my home. Everything is so expensive for everyone; a big increase should [have] happened long ago for us [essential] workers.”
The lack of essential cost-of-living adjustments is made more devastating by the cost of Princeton’s healthcare benefits. Despite receiving praise from many workers in the survey, many also criticized the fact that unionized employees’ negotiated annual raises (around 3 percent) are almost entirely negated by the rise in healthcare costs each year (also around 3 percent) — even before inflation. Princeton’s pay stagnation shows a blatant disregard for the deplorable conditions that their essential workers live in — conditions that are in direct contrast to Princeton’s status as the wealthiest per-capita university in the U.S.
Princeton must give its workers automatic, meaningful increases in wages that account for changes in the cost of living. Responding to our survey, 105 out of 116 workers said that they would “support automatic cost of living adjustments” as a baseline policy. In responses that provided more detail, many mentioned a desire for financial security and fair compensation. “Our current raises hardly even keep up with yearly increases in health care let alone everyday cost of living increases,” noted one worker. Another asserted: “We all deserve more than just a cost of living raise.” Yet given Vice President of Human Resources Romy Riddick’s claim that Princeton is “paying very close attention to the salaries and making market adjustments,” it is evident that Princeton only cares about the market viability of its wages, not the needs of its workers.
Given Princeton’s current indifference to these conditions, students must play an active role in pressuring the University to make real changes — most importantly, annual wage increases across the board for its workers to combat the rising cost of living. Students’ voices can genuinely influence the actions of the administration. Look to the incredible efforts of Divest Princeton, for instance, and their resilient campaign that resulted in the University divesting its endowment from publicly traded fossil fuel companies.
Their work is far from over, however, and so is ours. We encourage students to advocate on behalf of workers who have found their struggles invisible to and ignored by Princeton. Join us in our fight against the University’s negligence for our most essential workers to live a life free from immense and unnecessary turmoil and hardship.
To help us advocate for this vital change, we encourage you to sign on to student groups’ petition for the University to address campus workers’ needs. Also, please join us on May 1st as part of the Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA) May Day March for International Workers Day as we amplify workers’ grievances. The march begins at 112 Witherspoon Street on May 1 at 6:00pm and will feature speakers from YDSA, ULA, and other groups advocating for workers’ rights and empowerment.
Additionally, fighting on the side of Princeton’s campus workers in their attempt to receive fair and livable compensation is their local union, Local 175 of Service Workers International Union (SEIU). Made up of our indispensable workers (staff from dining halls, cleaning, maintenance, etc.), SEIU 175 is urging the University to better pay its workers. However, effectively utilizing the union to advocate on behalf of workers turns out to be quite difficult at Princeton, given their “no-strike” clause in the negotiated contract, as Bryce Springfield ’25 and Lucy Armengol ’26 argue in another piece.
David Beeson ’26 and Abdul-Bassit Fijabi ’24 are members of Young Democratic Socialists of America at Princeton. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of SEIU 175. This article was written alongside another in a series on campus labor.