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Georgetown University Protesters Savor Win

Susan Notes: Imagine students applying what they learn in a class that brings up the issue of social justice in the world around them.

What if teachers were next? There is no question but the test scores of students suffering the most difficulty in school would rise if educators would use the power of their unions to fight for living wages for those students' parents. It wouldn't matter what reading methodology was used, those scores would rise.

Imagine teachers, principals, school board members, professors, and researchers coming together to fight for the greater good of the community. Imagine the results.

After nine days of water, dizziness, vomiting and protest, Georgetown University freshman Jack Mahoney ate a strawberry yesterday just before noon. "It was great," he said, beaming. "It was amazing."

More than 20 students ended their nine-day hunger strike for higher wages and better benefits for university contract workers yesterday, dancing in a ring, singing along with a guitar, cheering and eating strawberries, one slow bite at a time. They had duct-taped a blue banner over their huge "Living Wage" sign: The new one announced "We all won!"

The fight for better working conditions on campus has resonated across the country, said Jamin B. Raskin, chairman of the Maryland State Higher Education Labor Relations Board, and some experts expect to see more clashes. "We're living in an era where a lot of universities are acting just like corporations," Raskin said, "and students are insisting the universities stay true to their intellectual and moral heritage."

Yesterday, after more than a week without food, the Georgetown protesters thought they had hit a brick wall with administrators. "We had a long conversation about whether we could continue," Mahoney said, and he steeled himself for a much longer fast, more weakness, more discomfort. Two students had already gone to the hospital.

But last night, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia approved a proposal to increase total compensation for contract workers from a minimum of $11.33 an hour to $13 by July and to $14 by July 2007, according to university officials. The proposal also affirms workers' right to organize without intimidation and offers access to benefits, such as English as a Second Language classes and university transportation shuttles.

"We were stunned," said protester Liam Stack. "This is a real victory."

Students hugged and cheered and then went to find workers to tell them they would be getting a raise. Silvia Garcia was cleaning a bathroom in the Intercultural Center on campus when a group of students burst in sometime before midnight and told her, in Spanish, "We won! We won!"

Workers were jumping up and down, clapping, smiling and thanking students while students thanked them, Mahoney said.

Garcia, a native of El Salvador who has been a cleaner at Georgetown since May, said yesterday afternoon, "We were all very, very happy."

Yesterday, administrators, students, union members and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who is a professor at Georgetown's law school, met to finalize the deal.

DeGioia said the change for the 450 or so contract janitors and food-service and security workers "is an appropriate next step for us" in ongoing efforts to ensure good working conditions.

He taught some of the protesters in classes on human rights, he said, and has repeatedly urged students to engage in social justice issues. "There is an irony there," he said, and laughed.

A few years ago, some Georgetown students began meeting contract workers. They offered makeshift English classes for some and brought breakfast at 6 a.m. Fridays for workers getting off the night shift. They talked to them about higher wages -- students initially asked for nearly $15 an hour from the university -- and encouraged them to think about unionizing.

Similar conversations are taking place across the country, said Tom Juravich, director of the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, often growing out of the anti-sweatshop movements of the past decade.

As students protested over the working conditions of overseas employees making university gear, they also began to look at workers closer to home, he said.

At Georgetown, workers stopped by late most nights during the hunger strike, Mahoney said, to check on them. He spent much of his time having vivid daydreams of eating a vegetable samosa from an M Street restaurant. He lost 10 pounds, dropping to 135 on his 5-foot-8-inch frame.

"They gave everything to solve our problems before they [graduated], by the grace of God," Garcia said. "Without them, we would have gotten nothing."

Staff writer Pamela Constable contributed to this report.

Here's the reaction of Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation.

Sweet Victory: Fairness at Georgetown

After more than a week without food, the twenty-plus members of Georgetown's Living Wage Coalition started to have their doubts.

The students, who began a hunger strike on March 15th demanding that the university increase wages for its 450 contract custodians, food service employees, and security guards, had seen little sign of real compromise on the part of the administration. Two students had already been taken to the hospital, and others were suffering from dizziness, nausea, and blurred vision.

But the students persisted, and on Holy Thursday, America's oldest Catholic university officially agreed pay its contract workers a living wage, increasing compensation from a minimum of $11.33 an hour to $13 by July and to $14 by July 2007.

Upon hearing the news, the ecstatic students shouted "We won! We won!" with campus workers and celebrated with their first meal in nine days: fresh strawberries. "We were stunned," protester Liam Stack told the Washington Post. "This is a real victory."

According to Wider Opportunities for Women, whose report bolstered the campaign's arguments, the cost of living in Washington DC is one of the highest in the country. For workers such as Maria Rivas--a 60-year-old custodial employee who holds a second job and still earns only $600 a month--the wage increase will help her meet rent, pay for groceries, and purchase medication for her 83-year-old father.

The hunger strike was the final result of a three-year push by the Living Wage Coalition to improve conditions for contract workers. Students had grown increasingly frustrated by the university's unwillingness to address the issue--something they saw as especially hypocritical given the school's purported ethos of compassion and sacrifice.

The students, who said they were willing to continue the strike through the weekend, when the campus would be officially closed, will head home for an especially sweet Easter break.
--The Nation

— Susan Kinzie



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