Growing wave of student-labor solidarity

Students demand a living wage for all Georgetown workers.

Across the country a new student movement has emerged to support campus workers’ fights for decent wages, adequate health care and other needs. Students are beginning to play an integral role as allies in the struggle for workers’ rights on their campuses.

The most recent victory was achieved by an alliance between workers and students at Georgetown University. A campaign of meetings and rallies that culminated in a hunger strike by students, workers and alumni finally led to the adoption of a living wage for all Georgetown workers.

On the heels of the successful living wage campaign at Harvard University, numerous Georgetown students, led by the Georgetown Solidarity Committee, began their own living wage campaign in the fall of 2001. By the next semester, the campaign helped raise the hourly wages of all workers employed by Georgetown to a minimum of $10.25.

But a whole caste of Georgetown workers was not officially employed by the university. Many worked for subcontracting firms and were paid less and received fewer, if any, benefits. So the Georgetown Solidarity Committee students continued their campaign.

They expanded their campaign to demand more than just a living wage. Many of the subcontracted workers were Latino immigrants who spoke little English. So the Solidarity Committee set a new goal to allow the workers to take English as a Second Language classes at the university, according to Georgetown student activist Rashida Roberts.

The Solidarity Committee, along with the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) and the Hoya Outreach and Programs Education (HOPE) began to offer “worker appreciation breakfasts” for people working the overnight shift, as well as ESL classes. “Because a living wage alone is not enough, we had to address the issue of some subcontracted workers making only $6.60,” Roberts said.

From forums to hunger strike

While the Solidarity Committee continued to hold educational forums and produce materials showing that the current wages paid to Georgetown workers were inadequate, the university administration refused to address this issue. Over the next two years, the students received support from various unions and organizations that helped them keep up the fight. Then students elevated the struggle on March 15, 2005, by calling for a hunger strike. Public pressure on the administration began to build.

Within two days, the students received a message of solidarity from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney: “The AFL-CIO applauds the more than 20 Georgetown University students currently on a hunger strike as part of their passionate three-year campaign to convince the University to offer campus workers a living wage, equal pay for women, job security and a fair process by which workers can freely form unions to improve their lives. The students’ hunger strike symbolizes the hunger of workers everywhere to secure good benefits, a fair wage, health care and a say in their working conditions.”

Roberts pointed to the massive solidarity that the 27 hunger strikers received as a factor in helping the students to succeed. “Even if people were not able to participate in the hunger strike, students, alumni and others did solidarity fasts for a day to show their support,” she said.

The campaign generated support by emphasizing the drastic difference between Georgetown workers’ actual wages and what was needed for workers to survive. The students’ struggle forced the administration to commit to paying subcontracted workers $8.50 an hour—a raise of close to 30 percent. Students referenced the study by Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) which found that workers in the District of Columbia area need to make $14.93 to make ends meet, indicating that even the recent wage increase is not enough.

On March 30, students and workers declared victory when the university adopted a “Just Employment Policy.” This policy guarantees that all workers, direct employees and subcontracted, will make a minimum of $14 an hour by fiscal year 2008. It also provides access to grievance procedures, university facilities and ESL classes for all workers.

Hunger striker Rashida Roberts speaks at a rally celebrating worker-student victory.

Photo: Caneisha Mills
Solidarity campaign spreads

The victory is encouraging other activists to take up the campaign for workers’ rights. At the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, students held demonstrations in front of the administration building for higher wages for contract and classified employees.

Students at Howard University are becoming involved in improving the plight of workers suffering low wages and understaffing. Many work 80-90 hours of overtime in a two-week period because they are forced to do the work of three or four people. Keith Gilbert, a Howard University engineer, summed up the situation for many campus workers: “We, the workers, are being left out. We are not being given what we need.”

Students are standing beside workers fighting to improve their situation. The successful Georgetown Living Wage Campaign has shown that students can help make a difference. It has become a beacon of hope for workers who are struggling against the bosses’ escalated attempts to drive down wages and benefits. It is an example for unions seeking to tap the solidarity of the broader community in their struggles against penny-pinching and profit-driven employers.

Students have an important advantage in solidarity campaigns with campus workers: they can’t be fired. Too often, workers who fight for a union or speak up for their rights are fired—even though it is illegal to do so. Students do not face that kind of threat and intimidation. Jamin B. Raskin, chairman of the State Higher Education Labor Relations Board in Maryland, said, “I think unions understand they have a bit more leverage in organizing on campuses.”

The growing labor-student solidarity does not just benefit the workers who win higher wages and benefits. Students are exposed to a side of life that campus administrations try hard to shield them from: the class struggles that take place day-in and day-out across the United States. For students who ultimately dedicate their lives to social change, the working class has more lessons to teach than any professor in a classroom.

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