Sit-In at Wash. U.: 'It's Over'

Wind swept onto the campus of Washington University in St. Louis around noon Friday, bending tree limbs back and throwing rain sideways into castle-like Brookings Hall. But the inside of the admissions office was silent and still.

April 25, 2005

Wind swept onto the campus of Washington University in St. Louis around noon Friday, bending tree limbs back and throwing rain sideways into castle-like Brookings Hall. But the inside of the admissions office was silent and still.

Then, Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton stepped past sleeping bags and around crates of essentials: three pound boxes of Cheez-Its, economy size Listerine bottles, baby wipes for alcohol-rub "showers." He extended a hand to members of the Student Worker Alliance (SWA) on day 19 of their sit-in, which included a six-day hunger strike, protesting the wages of university workers. "It’s over," whispered sophomore Meredith Davis, unable to contain a broad smile.  She was one of a dozen students who stayed all 19 days.  Then another student screamed out the window, “It’s over!” to applause from about 80 supporters in the quad. 

Moments earlier, the SWA and Wrighton approved a list of policies for janitors, groundskeepers, and other non-professional university employees, some of whom make less than "living wage," as defined by the City of St. Louis.  

"We have a great plan, and I look forward to getting to work," said Wrighton, who went back and forth several times with students on their demands over the course of the sit-in.  “The university ultimately showed it can accommodate differences.  Now let’s get back to work.”

The Washington University protests followed a hunger strike over similar issues at Georgetown University and marked a ratcheting up of activism on behalf of low-level employees in higher education.  The protests here and elsewhere are attracting strong backing from organized labor, which sees student idealism as a powerful force. But college administrators are bothered by such protests, contending that the institutions do not have unlimited funds and fearing for students’ health during hunger strikes.

Washington University did not commit to meet city definitions of a "living wage," as the students initially demanded. But the university agreed to spend an additional $500,000 a year on improving wages and benefits for service workers; to appoint a team to review contractors that hire lower level employees when the university does not hire directly; to provide a person to whom workers can lodge grievances; and to join the Worker Rights Consortium, a group of colleges that pledge to make sure that basic rights are set for workers in the production of clothing and other items with institutional names.

St. Louis defines “living wage” as between $10 and $12 an hour, depending on benefits.  Currently, Washington University custodians make around $8 an hour, according to Service Employees International Union Local 1, and groundskeepers make $9.49, according to the SWA.  It is not clear how the additional $500,000 will affect those pay rates, as some of the money may go toward improved benefits.

The students were forced to back down from their request that the university only do business with contractors that allow workers to unionize, and they were not able to get complete amnesty for violating university policy with the sit-in.

James McLeod, vice chancellor for students, assured students that they almost certainly would not be suspended, but he said that the university’s judicial code cannot be "tossed out the window." McLeod suggested punishments would likely be along the lines of community service, or writing essays on civil disobedience. Some of the student protesters will need to meet with a judicial board to have their records unfrozen, enabling them to register for next year’s courses.

Earlier in the sit-in, the administration expressed concern that some of the students' demands would hurt university finances. But Wrighton said the concessions that were made are reasonable, and will make Washington University a better place.  "I couldn’t be happier," he said. “I’m not surprised by the agreement, only by the timeframe of the sit-in.”

Declaring their effort a victory, the students took the “occupied zone” sign off the Brookings Hall door and expressed relief that they had spent their last night camping in the living-room sized admissions office. The beginning of the end came when the students submitted a letter of demands to Wrighton Thursday morning. In the letter, they also backed down on some of their earlier demands, most notably on the living wage. Wrighton said he would respond the next day.  And so began day 18.

For the first few days of the strike, Delise LePool continued to sit behind the large curving counter and do her work as a receptionist in the admissions office. She was supportive of the students. But as laundry piled up on the chairs and empty cans of grape and orange soda took over the faux-fireplace, LePool broke down. “I cry every day when I come to work when I see what you have done to my area,” she told Student Life, the student paper. 

Live at the Sit-in

As Day 18 rolls around, Le Pool is long gone (although other admissions employees continue to work in the halls around the students). Her space looks more dorm and less office. The students did not expect to stay so long, and many are crammed along the walls with laptops trying to keep up with classes.  Books are strewn about: Price Theory; A Biological Basis for Human Behavior; Introduction to Philosophy.

Le Pool is not the only one who had had enough. A recent Student Life survey said about 70 percent of Washington University students support higher wages for workers, but do not necessarily support the SWA’s tactics. Then, on day 17, the Student Senate passed a resolution calling for the SWA to end the sit-in. Earlier on in the protest, some critics shared their feelings less diplomatically.

“During the hunger strike," Davis said of the fast that ended April 18 when the administration agreed to meet with the students, “some guy stopped by with chicken and mashed potatoes, just to taunt us." 

But inside their temporary home, the students’ resolve, bolstered by a petition of support signed by 175 professors, hardly wavered. With ample food supplied by supporters, the students were tired, but steadfast. Loaves of bread covered part of the wooden counter, obscuring pamphlets that read, “Welcome undergraduate admissions visitors.”

In the early afternoon of Day 18, some students begin to discuss how behind in classes they have fallen. “It’s impossible to keep up like this,” said Joe Thomas, a sophomore. "I’ll probably have to take an incomplete." Others muse about taking normal showers, as opposed to swabbing alcohol on themselves or washing in the bathroom sink across the hall. 

But whenever group morale begins to wane, the students recall their highlights. "John Edwards called to say he supported us," said Ojiugo Uzoma, a senior who sleeps in a tent just outside the office. "And Danny Glover. There’ve been so many calls."

Other times, visitors brighten the mood.  Around 2 p.m., Cesar Compadre, a professor from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, drops by in a suit, bearing yellow flowers and a metallic-balloon dragonfly.  His daughter, Irene Compadre, is one of the protesters.

"I’m worried about her scholarship,” he confessed. "But how can you not be proud? She’s standing up for what she believes in." A steady stream of visitors keep the students energized. Some stop by just to see if the sit-in is for real. 

“Do you really sleep in here?” says one student who poked her head in the office.  Several heads nodded. "So…you don’t shower?"

Around 4 p.m., the parade of visitors slowed down. Some SWA members who had fallen far behind in classes go in and out trying to find out what they’ve missed. Otherwise, the mood is somber. But another sort of visitor, a clandestine note, brightens the mood. Student Michelle Fealk walks down the hall to the office. It is adorned by newspaper clippings about the sit-in and signs from supporters. One sign, from a third-grader named Brianna, reads: “Help protest and pay them people!”

Fealk opened the door, smiling, and holding a crumpled note. "It’s from a worker," she beamed. "They aren’t allowed to come by, so they pass notes." The note is scrawled on a torn bit of cardboard. It says the workers love what the students are doing, ending, "Stand out for us."

Around 5 p.m., a hum of voices creeps in a window bearing the sign: "Workers can’t eat prestige." About 40 supporters had gathered outside for the daily rally. The protesters set up their microphone in the window and took turns thanking their supporters. Varun Chalivendra, a dapper squatter, in black rimmed glasses, a button shirt and slacks, steps to the microphone. The crowd counts on him for a daily Gandhi quote. 

"Gandhi said," Chalivendra pauses, "Chancellor Wrighton should go ahead and sign an agreement so we can get out of here!" 

The rally disbanded quickly. A few supporters stopped inside. One professor dropped off some readings on the Haymarket Riot. Alum Benjamin Israel stopped in to share stories about the protests he was part of in 1970, when ROTC buildings on campus were burned. "They’re much more polite than we were," he said.  

The rest of the night went quietly. The last supper was Mexican food in Styrofoam containers. Some students cleared a bit of space for homework, while others talked politics and housing segregation with a history professor, all to a musical background, part Bob Dylan, part Turkish dance tunes. 

Chalivendra found out about an overdue paper. "I promised I’d have it in by midnight tonight," he said around 10:30 p.m. None of his course books were in the admissions office, so he had to look for sources for a profound concluding idea online. Before they go to bed, a few students wanted to get ready for Wrighton’s response the next morning.

"What if he says ‘No’ to unions?" one asked, referring to the demand that the university do business only with contractors who allow unions. "I personally pledge the next two years to making sure they can get a union," replied Thomas. "As long as they agree to continue the discussion, we can still have an agreement." The minute hand sweeps past 12.  "Crap," Chalivendra said. "It’s tomorrow," as he clicks to submit his paper. 

Day 19. Thomas ambles out into the hallway bleary eyed.  “Hey Joe, you’re in The Post-Dispatch,” a passerby told him. “Oh…yep,” he said, and headed for the bathroom. The other students begin to wake up and tidy the room. By 10 a.m. all eyes are on the clock. 11 a.m. is the deadline for Wrighton’s response. At 11:05 a.m., there is no response. 11:10 a.m., still nothing. At 11:15, McLeod comes in with a two-page letter. It has slight changes: no amnesty; refusal to limit business to contractors who allow unions; and a slight rebuke for having “inappropriately consumed university resources.”

McLeod leaves the letter with the students. They pore over it with pens and highlighters for about half an hour. Supporters have gathered outside singing "Glory Glory Hallelujah." McLeod returns for more discussion. He explains to the students that he simply cannot guarantee them amnesty. "You gave me your word that the scholarships would be OK," Cesar Compadre interjected. McLeod assures him that is the case. Shortly after noon, Wrighton shows up, and it’s all over.

Several SWA members throw open the window. The dragonfly balloon beats the students out, meeting the cheers of the crowd and a light shower of rain. Professor Howard Brick is standing just outside the window and does not yet know the specifics of the final agreement, but he is tearing up. "Your victory is that you demonstrated the power of solidarity," he said into the microphone. The rain is getting stronger.

The dragonfly bounces off the castle wall. The few reporters in the crowd hunch over their notebooks to keep them dry. Brick’s face is a mix of rain and tears. “The last three weeks have been my most exciting time at this university, and I’ve been here nine years,” he said. And, as he knows, now it is back to business as usual.


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