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Compromise Ends Hunger Strike

March 25, 2005

Two dozen students at Georgetown University ended a nine-day hunger strike Thursday after the university approved a new policy that increases the pay and benefits for janitors and other contract workers.

As is often the case in situations like this, both sides claimed victory: University officials held their ground on the major points in dispute -- notably the pay levels -- but students won some concessions that were important to them.

Twenty-five members of the Georgetown Living Wage Coalition began their protest on the evening of March 15, after the university put forward a proposal that they rejected as inadequate. In the days since then, the students (one of whom bowed out when he was hospitalized with vision loss, and was replaced by another protester) said they had lost a total of 270 lbs. and drew a significant amount of attention from the news media and labor leaders.

On Wednesday night, though, Georgetown's president, John J. DeGioia, sent a universitywide e-mail announcing that the university had adopted a "just employment" policy. In several major ways, the policy was identical to the one the students had rejected eight days earlier.

For instance, the new policy will increase the total compensation package (which includes health care costs) for all workers to $13 an hour by this July and $14 an hour by July 2007 from the current $11.33, and adjust the pay annually based on the local cost of living. In rejecting that proposal last week, a coalition statement said that "$14 an hour is not a living wage now and it will not be a living wage in 2008." Students had wanted Georgetown to raise the minimum wage of all workers, including those who work for its contractors, to $14.93 an hour by this July.

But student leaders said that Georgetown had made some important nods in their direction by meeting some of their demands. For instance, the university agreed to ensure that all those who work at Georgetown -- even those who are employed by subcontractors -- have benefits such as library privileges and access to English as a Second Language courses. And the university included language in the new policy giving all workers the rights to "a safe and harassment-free environment," "to freely associate and organize," and "to vote for or against union representation without intimidation, unjust pressure, or hindrance."

"WE ALL WON!" the student group announced on its Web site.

But besides sticking to their guns on the actual wages to be paid to contract workers, university officials stopped short of adopting the students' rhetoric -- notably using the phrase "just employment" rather than "living wage" to describe its policy -- and numerous other demands related to union organizing and how to calculate future wage increases.

In his message announcing the new policy, DeGioia struck a tone of conciliation mixed with a gentle suggestion that students find less confrontational and dramatic forms of negotation in the future. He wrote: "It is also important to recognize that the passionate engagement of students over the past two years has helped us to achieve the goals this policy addresses. Going forward, I hope that a spirit of collaboration and reasoned dialogue will characterize our work on these matters."

 

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