Washington U students sit in, demand living wage

ST. LOUIS — About 20 students and alumni entered the Washington University admissions office April 4, demanding a response to their appeal for a living wage for campus employees. The students are members of the Student Worker Alliance (SWA).

“We will remain here until [University Chancellor Mark] Wrighton accepts our demands, until we get a living wage for all campus employees,” senior Danielle Christmas told the World. “We aren’t willing to accept anything less than a living wage.”

The sit-in is part of a national week of action organized by the Student Labor Action Project, a combined effort of Jobs with Justice and the United States Student Association. Students on more than 300 college campuses participated in this year’s actions, which commemorated the March 31 birthday of the late farm workers union leader Cesar Chavez, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.

St. Louis SWA member Janine Brito told the World, “It would take only 0.18 percent of the campus operating budget to provide a living wage to the campus employees. This is about dignity and respect.” Currently the university has an operating budget of about $1.5 billion.

“Wash U can afford to provide a living wage and keep campus employees above the poverty line,” Brito said. According to Ron Baiman, a University of Chicago economist, a living wage would cost the university around $3 million a year.

Last year a university task force, established to investigate allegations of worker maltreatment, recommended that the university encourage contractors to work towards a living wage for campus employees. Despite the recommendations, Wrighton released a statement that said in part, “We would not be responsible stewards of the resources provided to us by our donors, tuition-paying students and families, and research sponsors if we were to provide, by policy, compensation beyond competitive levels.”

The chancellor’s statement was released Oct. 1, 2004, just days before the campus was to host the nationally televised presidential debates.

“It is hard to articulate the disappointment,” said Christmas. “So rarely are people, decision-makers, handed an opportunity to right a wrong and do something purely good. He had that chance and threw it away for financial interests.”

On April 1, in preparation for the sit-in, nearly 200 students, community activists and trade unionists protested outside of Wrighton’s office. SWA member Ojiugo Uzoma said at that time, “This is a better than average school. We demand that Wash U provide a better than average wage to our campus employees.”

After the rally, several SWA members marched into the chancellor’s office and delivered a list of demands, which include a Code of Conduct Agreement, card check neutrality for union recognition and a living wage.

“We understand the difference between right and wrong,” said Christmas. “Poverty wages aren’t enough. We have a responsibility as a campus community to do better.”