Students declare hunger strike for a living wage

By the

March 17, 2005

In the cramped hallway outside of the Gervase Conference Room, a small crowd of students gathered Monday afternoon to await a decision some of them had been anticipating for almost four years. A few expressed cautious optimism; more were nervous. But when the door finally opened, it became clear that for the assembled members of the Living Wage Coalition, the wait was not over yet. After two hours of discussion, the board remained unable to reach a conclusion on the issue of a living wage.

Now, three days later, 21 students have pledged that they will not eat again until the University adopts living wages for all of its contract workers-those hired indirectly by the University through companies such as Follet Bookstores, Marriott and P&R Custodial. Unlike a typical flat salary, a living wage reflects the cost of residence in Washington, D.C. and is recalculated on an annual basis.

At the Monday meeting, LWC members presented Senior Vice President Spiros Dimolitsas and his advisory committee with a proposal to raise the salary of every contract employee to $14.93 per hour, a sum that includes both wages and health care benefits. Dimolitsas countered with a plan based on a series of incremental increases that would guarantee a minimum package of $14.00 per hour by July 2008.

According to LWC members, however, Dimolitsas’ proposal is inadequate because it does not account for yearly inflation in the price of living.

“We’ve been forced to start a hunger strike because all attempts at negotiation have failed,” LWC member Ginny Leavell (CAS ‘05) said.

Strike organizers are keeping a record of the weight lost by each participant. After the first day, they reported that one striker had lost eight pounds. Leavell said that many strikers had been preparing physically for months in the expectation that their demands of a living wage would not be met.

Vice President for Public Affairs and Strategic Development Dan Porterfield maintained that the concept of a living wage is not something on which the University can reasonably base its financial decisions because it is so difficult to define.

“The University does not have a policy that says our practice is to provide a living wage,” he said. “We would need to explain what that term means.”

According to economist Bruce Wydick, chair of the Department of Economics at the University of San Francisco, a policy based on living wage could actually cause more harm than good for Georgetown’s contract workers.

“If they raise the wages, the subcontracting company can just hire fewer people or replace some workers with machines,” he said. “It’s a series of trade-offs. It’s not just a justice issue.”

Estimates generated by University Services Chief Financial Officer Mary Beth Fargo and shared with the committee by Dimolitsas at Monday’s meeting put the University cost of raising wages to $14.93 per hour at just under $1.9 million.

This figure, Fargo admitted frankly, is not one that the University can easily meet under current circumstances.

“I think $1.8 million would be extremely difficult for us and would probably require us to lay people off,” she said.

Members of the LWC, however, promise to hold fast to their vow of hunger until the University agrees to adopt their proposal.

“We’re out here because the workers can’t be,” Leavell said.

“It’s true that they’re threatening their lives for us,” a contract worker who cleans bathrooms in Lauinger Library said. “It moves the heart.”

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