As the second day of the National Civil Rights Museum’s MLK50: Where Do We Go From Here? symposium wraps up, there was a conspicuous absence: people experiencing poverty.

Even though Dr. Martin Luther King’s last crusade was for the working poor, none of the speakers or moderators are currently poor. Most are academics, authors and executives.

Steph Butera

The host institution for today’s events, the University of Memphis, did not respond to our living wage survey, which asked Memphis’ top 25 employers 10 questions, including how much they pay their workers and what benefits they provide, despite several points of contact.

Labor historian Michael K. Honey told MLK50, “These companies like to say that they’re sponsoring events, which is great, but why wouldn’t they give information about living wages for their workers?”

One possible answer is that some of their employees do not have economic stability. Among these precarious employees are graduate students such as Steph Butera.

Butera, 25, who is a first-year PhD student in philosophy, and the United Campus Workers union are organizing a campaign to win healthcare for all university employees.

Butera notes that graduate students like herself have the privilege to be in their positions and that many university workers live under worse economic conditions. However, she notes that even for many graduate students, low annual earnings, unpaid labor, and a lack of health insurance means that they are unable to save and economically precarious.

“It would be nice to be able to engage in the act of thinking without trying to think about how to get benefits,” Butera said.

“It’s the corportization of the university… It’s pretty telling that the university sees itself in competition with other businesses and so it doesn’t want to show that it is not doing well in that competition (by responding to our living wage survey). They want us to be ignorant and that’s not what a university should be. It’s not a place of ignorance.”

According to Butera, each graduate department is given a set budget for paying their graduate workers and it is up to them among how many students that money is divided. So, the pay rate for graduate students varies widely depending on how many workers the department decides to employ.

As a part-time employee, Butera earns $20,000 a year, which is considerably higher than other graduate students she has consulted who earn only slightly more than half of that salary. However, she says that graduate students are expected to work considerably more hours than the 20 they are capped off to be paid for, bringing down their actual wage.

“What are those 20 hours supposed to be for? You’re preparing for classes, marking papers, doing research, and teaching. It’s mostly a formality to say we only work 20 hours,” she said.

Unpaid overtime and the costs of being uninsured renders making ends meet difficult.

Some students take on second jobs to make enough to live on each year, although at least one department, Chemistry, forbids outside employment, based on a survey by the Chemistry Graduate Student Association. As an international student, who are highly recruited by the university, Butera’s visa forbids her taking on other employment. This leaves students making less than $22,360 a year, which is the salary for a single adult with no children in Memphis who is able to work full-time at the living wage of $10.75 per hour. That covers only the most basic expenses, such as food, housing and transportation, with nothing left for savings or entertainment, according to economists’ calculations.

“It’s impolite to talk about money,” Butera said. “I wonder why. Whose interest is that in? The idea that needs to be dismantled is that we are only as valuable as capitalism makes us out to be. It wouldn’t be impolite if the idea wasn’t that your wage is attached to you, as a person.”

She sees a fundamental disparity between what she perceives as the emphasis on profit in the anniversary events and the message of Dr. King.

I think it’s ironic that the city is couching (the anniversary) as a touristic moment. It’s ironic to think that they want to focus this as a profit-making endeavor for the city, considering that there is such an undercurrent of activism here, which is so difficult to achieve because everyone is so oppressed,” she said.

“It’s a city of contradictions.”

The University of Memphis will also be the site of a United Campus Workers event April 11 to bring attention to the low pay and working conditions for adjunct faculty.

The April 2 symposium, held at the University of Memphis’ law school, featured academics such as Mark Osler, Toussaint Losier, Tomiko Brown-Nagin and Roy Austin; law professor and president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Sherrilyn Ifill; and former NAACP president Cornell Brooks. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was the keynote speaker Monday at a lunch held at The Peabody Hotel.

The symposium today on the university’s main campus featured author of Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign Michael K. Honey; Rhodes College professor Charles McKinney; Shelby County Schools Supt. Dorsey E. Hopson II, and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism founder Wendi Thomas. The keynote speaker is author and historian Taylor Branch, who will speak at a luncheon at the Holiday Inn at University of Memphis.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.