'Living Wages' and Hunger Strikes

April 13, 2005

Student protest season is in full swing.

Two weeks after students at Georgetown University ended a hunger strike aimed at winning a "living wage" for janitors and other contract workers there, students at Washington University in St. Louis have started their own such protest -- and the university is turning up the heat on them.

About a dozen members of the Student Worker Alliance at Washington U. have been sitting in in the admission office since April 3, to protest what they say is the low pay, lack of benefits and dearth of bargaining rights of janitors, groundskeepers and other workers employed by contractors for the university. Ojiugo Uzoma, a co-founder of the student group, said the students had targeted the admissions office, during the "April Welcome" period when prospective freshmen are visiting the campus to decide whether to enroll, because "we thought we would hit them in the pocketbook."

Uzoma, a senior majoring in international and area studies, said the students want the university to commit to ensuring that contractors pay their workers a living wage as defined by the city of St. Louis (between $10 and $12 an hour, depending on the extent of health benefits provided), to staying neutral if the contract workers seek to unionize, and to creating a board of adminstrators, professors and students to examine labor code violations by the university's contractors.

Monday, after a meeting between the protesters and university administrators, Washington's president, Mark S. Wrighton, sent a campuswide e-mail in which he committed the university to spending an additional $500,000 in 2005 toward "improving the wage/benefits packages of contract service employees in ways that also will enhance the university."

He also said the university would meet with its contractors to "discuss what improvements can be made, either individually or collectively, with special attention to health care issues." The proposal, university officials said in a statement, "is a sincere effort to address the needs of contract workers and to demonstrate the university's care and concern regarding their circumstances in a way consistent with university practice."

Dismissing the plan as inadequate, members of the Student Worker Alliance announced that evening that 14 members of the group would hold a hunger strike until the university met its demands.

Hours later, Washington officials formally warned the students that they were violating the university's judicial code, which prohibits "interfering with the rights of other members of the university community and visitors to the university to engage in educational, recreational, residential, administrative, professional, business, and ceremonial activities or other functions." The warning noted that the students risked punishment, up to expulsion, if they did not vacate the admissions office by 11:30 p.m. that night. They did not, but as of Tuesday evening, the university had taken no action against the protesters.

The students said they were preparing to be evicted or arrested. "We're trying to be on the ready in case anything like that happens," Uzoma said, adding, "we all knew the consequences of doing this action before we came in."

Late Tuesday afternoon, Wrighton sent another universitywide e-mail that seemed to presage some action by administrators to stop the hunger strike, which the chancellor said "concerns me deeply because of the very serious health implications involved." He said he had repeatedly attempted to discourage [the students] from taking this drastic and dangerous approach."

Wrighton said that "as a first step" he had asked student affairs administrators to talk to the students to "explain the potentially serious health consequences of their actions and to attempt to persuade them to choose another less injurious form of protest."

He added: "I take my responsibilities for the well-being of our community seriously and believe that we cannot allow our students to participate in potentially life-threatening activities on our campus."

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