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Going Hungry at Georgetown

March 22, 2005

A showdown appears to be looming in a weeklong standoff at Georgetown University over wages for janitors and other contracted workers.

About 25 members of a student group known as the Georgetown Living Wage Coalition raised the stakes a week ago in the lengthy dispute with university administrators by beginning a hunger strike. The students acted after a university committee let pass a March 14 deadline the coalition had imposed for Georgetown to commit to paying a "living wage" to campus workers.

The coalition had proposed that Georgetown approve a plan to raise the wage it pays janitors and other contract workers to $14.93 an hour (from the current $11.33) by July. But on March 14, Spiros Dimolitsas, a senior vice president at the university, proposed instead that Georgetown raise the wage to $13 an hour by this July and increase it each year through 2008, to an eventual total of $14 an hour. Students rejected the university's proposal; based on the cost of living in Washington, the students wrote in a response to Dimolitsas's proposal, "$14 an hour is not a living wage now and it will not be a living wage in 2008."

That evening, 25 members of the group vowed that they would "not consume food again until this university has accepted all of our demands by adopting a Living Wage policy based firmly on costs of living in DC." When not in class or working, the protesting students and their supporters gather in several tents set up on a campus square, and they have received significant attention from the news media.

Liam Stack, a junior who is a spokesman for the student group, says that one of the students gave up his hunger strike after he was hospitalized because of a loss of vision. "He doesn't have health insurance, so he couldn't afford to continue," says Stack, who adds that the protester was replaced by another student.

A spokeswoman for Georgetown, Julie Green Bataille, said the university is "committed to providing a fair and competitive compensation system for all workers," including those, like janitors, who work on contracts. But she said raising the wage abruptly as the students wish would result in "wage compression" that could force layoffs of the "very contract workers" the students are trying to help.

Bataille said a university committee that is due to meet today is likely to recommend that administrators adopt the plan to raise the wage to $14 by 2008. Bataille said Georgetown officials could adopt the wage increase by as soon as the middle of next week.

Leaders of the protest say the university's adoption of its plan will not end the hunger strike.

But Georgetown may turn up the heat on Tuesday, Bataille suggested. She noted that the university had sent the students e-mails on Monday explaining the health risks of a water-only diet, and urging them at least to drink juice.

The e-mail message from James Welsh, assistant vice president for student health services, asked them to visit him Monday afternoon to assure him that they were ingesting more than water. "If I do not hear from you," Welsh wrote, "I will assume that you are participating in the hunger strike and ingesting only water, and I will make recommendations to the vice president of student affairs to address my concerns about your dangerous activities."

Bataille said that the university officials have the authority, in those rare instances when they believe students may be putting themselves in danger, "to put them on leave as students and encourage them to seek medical attention." She said she did not believe that action would be necessary, because "most of the students are telling us that they're taking juice."

 

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