ST. LOUIS — Washington University here will commit at least $1 million over the next two years toward higher salaries and better benefits for low-paid contract employees as a result of a 19-day sit-in by students demanding a living wage for service workers. Wash U’s Student Worker Alliance (SWA) reached a groundbreaking agreement with campus officials April 22. “We won more in the last 19 days than we won in the last 18 months put together,” said SWA member Ojiugo Uzoma.
The new agreement is a significant step towards a living wage for campus service workers, who were making an average of $7.50 an hour. The university agreed to continue working towards a living wage and to form a joint student-university committee, with SWA representation, to improve university policy of freedom of association for all workers directly or indirectly employed by the university. Also, the university will join the Workers’ Rights Consortium, which ensures that factories producing university clothing and other goods respect workers’ rights.
The agreement includes amnesty for all students and faculty who participated in the sit-in. Several students had been threatened with legal sanctions during the campaign. Nearly 200 faculty publicly supported the living wage campaign and union recognition for the workers.
At the April 22 victory rally, Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) told SWA members, “You students risked a lot. But it was a worthwhile victory.”
Missouri state Rep. Maria Chappelle-Nadal told the World, “These courageous students fought their butts off. Never, for one moment, did they think about giving up.” During the last weekend of the sit-in, Chappelle-Nadal joined the students on the hunger strike and slept in the admissions office with the students.
Throughout the sit-in, community and labor support was strong. On April 7, Missouri AFL-CIO President Hugh McVey led a rally at Washington U in support of the students. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, sent a letter of support. Every day during the sit-in, labor and community groups, including the Missouri-Kansas Communist Party, brought the students lunch and dinner, and helped organize noon and 5 p.m. rallies. Throughout the hunger strike, religious leaders kept a 24-hour vigil outside of the admissions office.
“Nineteen days is a long time,” said Joan Suarez, a member of the Workers Rights Board and Jobs with Justice (JwJ). “Everyone talks about the courage of these students.” Suarez said that as the students were leaving the admissions office, workers walked up to them and told them, “Thank you.” Many had tears in their eyes, she said.
The Washington U victory comes just weeks after students at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., went on a hunger strike and won living wages for campus employees there. “SWA learned from like-minded groups across the country,” said Danielle Christmas, an SWA member. “We saw other students take power into their own hands. We knew that if things were going to change here, we had to take power into our hands,”
“By becoming part of a coalition, like JwJ, we gained an opportunity to unite with others. We learned that SEIU, and others, have been fighting for living wages for a long time,” said Christmas.
Christmas said that students have a lot to learn from organized labor, which, she said, has always fought for working people.” By working together, college students and trade unions can take up workers’ rights and win,” she added. SWA is part of the Student Labor Action Project, a joint project of JwJ and the United States Student Association.