Student-labor victory at Georgetown U: Unity wins living wage for campus

WASHINGTON — Georgetown University workers won a tremendous living wage victory last week. After months of organizing and a nine-day hunger strike, a student-labor alliance at Georgetown won a $14-an-hour wage for 452 fulltime contract campus workers, who had been making as little as $8.50 an hour. Workers will receive a minimum of $13 per hour by July 1 this year and $14 per hour by July 1, 2007.

These contract workers do mainly janitorial, security, and food service work on campus. According to the pact, workers will also receive a full benefits package and the right to organize.

Workers directly hired by the university will receive at least $14.08 per hour beginning July 1. Direct hire workers are already unionized.

“It’s a big win for the workers of Georgetown,” said Chris Garlok, “street heat” coordinator for the D.C. Metro Labor Council. “More importantly, it really raises the bar and the profile nationally because Georgetown is such a high-profile school and really is considered a moral leader.”

The Georgetown Solidarity Committee initiated the living wage struggle. In 1998 the committee staged a sit-in that forced the university to agree not to use sweatshop labor for anything bearing the Georgetown name.

“After GSC won that, they moved to more local issues,” said Rachel Murray, a spokesperson for the Georgetown Living Wage Coalition. “We’d been talking about a living wage since at least March of last year and explaining the issue to other students.” According to the group, in order to provide for a family of four and live in Washington, D.C., both parents would need to earn at least $14.93 per hour.

The students decided to form the “more specific” Living Wage Coalition to involve more groups, and immediately began work to make it campus-wide.

The roster of groups the coalition counts as members includes the Jewish Students Association, the Muslim Student Association, the Chicano student group MEChA, and the campus GLBT group Pride, among many other organizations.

“We tried to show the importance of solidarity amongst different groups on campus, and the importance of student groups working together for social justice for the members of our community,” said Khalil Hibri of the Georgetown Social Democrats, a member group of the coalition.

“The students ran a brilliant campaign,” Garlok said. “I think that their timing was impeccable — with a crescendo on Holy Week at a Jesuit school is strategically brilliant. Also, they very clearly had the moral high ground and were willing to put their bodies on the line.”

Things really began to heat up when the students declared a hunger strike March 15. Twenty-six students participated and hundreds of others supported them. Two students were hospitalized.

Even then, the university resisted. Jim Welch, head of the student health center, said that he would put many of the hunger strikers on forced medical leave. To prevent this, the students changed the hunger strike from water-only to juice-only.

The strike gained the recognition of local and national labor leaders, culminating in a March 22 rally of hundreds. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, D.C. Metro Labor Council President Josh Williams and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) were among the speakers.

The demonstrators marched to the university offices where Trumka and Williams were to meet with the university’s president and vice-president.

“We took over the president’s office,” Garlok said, “and we were waiting for them to come on out, but they didn’t.”

Williams announced that he and other labor leaders would join the hunger strike if the demands were not met by midnight the next day. With this added pressure, the university acted. On March 23 at 11:30 p.m. — only 30 minutes before the deadline — the university agreed to a settlement.

After nine days of a hunger strike, with 270 pounds collectively lost, the students and workers won.