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Students & Workers United: Living Wage Campaign Victory at Georgetown University

Rachel Murray
Date Published: 
August 01, 2005
    After three years of hard work by students, workers and their allies, Georgetown University (GU) finally committed to a Living Wage policy on March 24, 2005.

When students first decided to begin a living wage campaign at GU through the Georgetown Solidarity Committee (GSC) – the labor rights group on campus – we started talking to campus workers to find out their situation. We found out that some were making as low as $6.60 an hour at a time when $12 was a living wage.

So in March 2003 we independently produced the Georgetown Living Wage Report. It consisted of what a living wage is and why GU as a Jesuit school should follow it ideals. It also contained data from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) on how a living wage in Washington, DC is calculated. Despite this, the Administration still advocated for more research before committing to anything.
At the same time, the administration wanted to engage us in another process to discuss the issues at hand. It took the form of the Advisory Committee on Business Practices (ACBP). After a semester-long discussion of framing its charter and putting visible pressure on the committee to start meeting, the ACBP finally met in October 2004. We did see short-term benefits such as a raise to $8.50 and health care for all workers, but even that was not fully implemented until visible pressure was put on Georgetown to follow through on what they promised to do.

Coalition building

Even though this committee was ultimately the vehicle through which we were able to agree upon a Living Wage policy with the administration in March 2005 many factors led to our victory. We took the time to build support among workers, faculty, the labor community in DC, and Jesuits on campus. Using GU’s image as a Jesuit institution to push our cause helped build support within the catholic community on campus and within DC.

We used much of our time at GU to organize our campaign. We organize as a non-hierarchal, consensus based, decision-making group so when we have meetings we make sure that everyone agrees with the actions we are taking. Whether it was through long (usually 4 hour) weekly strategy meetings or retreats at and away from campus, we would constantly reassess the campaign and make sure it was going in the direction we needed.

In January 2005, the Living Wage Coalition was created to build a stronger sense of solidarity among students on campus and branch out so the work would not be kept simply within the GSC. This helped the campaign gain more support from campus and within the DC community. We needed to intensify the pressure on the administration to act quickly, considering they had three years to look over our demands and talk to us about them.

Escalating actions

It was also in January that we planned what actions we would take and how we would prepare for them if the administration did not commit to a living wage policy. We decided that a hunger strike was the best non-violent direct action we could engage ourselves in to pressure the administration. We researched what going on a hunger strike would mean for us physically so that we could mentally prepare our bodies for what was ahead.

Before our spring break we escalated our actions by holding rallies. We invaded a board of directors meeting and then later met with them independently so that the specific demands that we were fighting for in a living wage policy would be on their conscience. We performed a play that represented the work we had been doing for three years, the situation of workers on campus, and the opposition we faced along the way. The play was performed for hundreds of audience members creating even more support among the student body.

Days of phone bombing and mass e-mailing during this period was also important in keeping the living wage on the agenda of our administration and members of the ACBP. During Georgetown’s spring break we spent our time planning and preparing the final details of a hunger strike. The group planned to begin this action on March 15 to prepare for the likelihood that the administration would not commit to anything by the March 14 deadline we gave them.

Three years of hard work on the Living Wage campaign by both workers and students brought us to this point. It had always been in the back of our mind that we might need some form of strong direct action to get Georgetown University to commit to our demands. All our work would be tested by whether or not they committed. If the administration adopted the policy we proposed then we would win. If they denied our demands once again that did not mean the end, only a continued test of our preparations over the past three years.

Hunger strike

On March 14 the ACBP did not produce any policy so the hunger strike began the next day with 22 participants. All our work in building support over the months and the years before this action paid off as the AFL-CIO, many of the religious leaders in DC, Joslyn Williams of the Metro Washington Central Labor Council, the Catholic Labor Network and countless others came to our aid. We constructed a tent in Georgetown’s main square, held daily rallies, visited administrators office with large groups of people, even held a rally on the floor of the building where most administrators have their offices.

The hunger strike took place during an important time in the Catholic religion, Holy Week. The Holy week is historically a fasting time for Catholics, as it is the last week during Lent before the Easter celebration of Jesus rising from the dead. This gave our hunger strike strength and valued support from the Catholic community of DC, especially since GU is a Jesuit institution. Workers came to our events and spoke out to show their support. The coalition made sure that we weren’t just a bunch of kids sitting in a tent that the administration could ignore.

Each day we made our presence felt in their daily lives through our disturbances. We would visit our administrators to give them the message of what was happening to students because they were not eating. Our hope was that if Georgetown did not care about the situation of workers on campus, maybe they would care about the students. We outreached to the media because bad press for Georgetown would be another incentive for the administration to get the hunger strike over with as quickly as possible.
On March 22, 8 days into the hunger strike, we held the biggest rally yet of the campaign in Red Square, the free speech zone of Georgetown. Several unions were present, among them were SEIU Local 82 and the Teamsters. Richard Trumka, Vice President of the AFL-CIO, Congresswomen Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Joslyn Williams were among the speakers at the rally. After the speakers, we took the rally into the GU building where the administrative offices are located so that President DeGioia could meet with the labor leaders. But when we arrived, DeGioia and other administrators did not come out to meet with the union representatives as promised.

Over a hundred people continued chanting and dancing outside President DeGioia’s office. Since DeGioia did not come out, Joslyn Williams announced that if the Georgetown Administration did not commit to a Living Wage policy by midnight the next day that he would join the students and hunger strike with them. The next day, March 23, several students went back to the president’s office armed with a megaphone. They decided that they would read the proposal to DeGioia again in case he had not read it yet. During this action one hunger striker started having trouble breathing and was taken away in an ambulance.

The rest of the students were forced out by campus security because they were disrupting the business of the president’s office. After this action, the group was unsure about what to do next since the whole school was going on Easter break the next day. We held a four hour meeting that did not produce any concrete results but only more stress, especially for the hunger strikers who believed that they would have to continue on through Easter Break. At 7pm that night the student members of the ACBP were called into a meeting and presented with a compromise proposal, the Just Employment Policy. At approximately 10:30pm the policy was broadcasted to the entire University community, only an hour and a half before the deadline imposed by Joslyn Williams.

Living wage

The Just Employment Policy reflected almost all of our demands, which included a raise to $14 dollars an hour, total compensation and various non-wage benefits important to workers rights such as job-security and wage parity. The Policy specified that the workers’ wages were going to be indexed annually to the cost of living. It also stated that contracted employees should have the right to such benefits as “English as a Second-Language” classes that union workers already enjoy because students worked with the union to set them up two years ago. Although certain demands were not met, this policy is still the best living wage policy that any university has produced thus far.

The fact that our group, which has been working on this issue for three years, came out of this non-violent direct action with the same strong bonds as it went in with is also a victory. This type of action was not easy, it took sacrifices on the part of many people, especially workers who took time to come to our events even when they hadn’t slept in days or had to miss work. Hungry and tired students are not easy to deal with but we tried to pay attention to each other’s feelings and kept the workers in the forefront of our discussions. The outside support we received kept us going and was crucial to our success.

A Living Wage campaign is a top-down process, so unfortunately we had to spend our time dealing with processes with the administration. In the end we thought it important to portray the victory as a victory for all of GU, so that the school could save its image and be a leader for other universities.

Even though the campaign succeeded, our work to build relationships among students and workers is not over. The collective well being of the workers involved continues to be front and center. Our group will continue to fight for better conditions, whether that means setting up better grievance procedures or unionizing the non-unionized workers. As members of the Georgetown community we will continue to ensure that everyone in the community is treated with dignity and respect.