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Student Hunger Strike Pays Off at Georgetown U

After 10 days without food, 26 students get the administration to accept a living wage for their lowest paid workers.

Making Progress, Marcus Mrowka, George Washington University, Mar. 25, 2005

After 10 days without food, 26 students get the administration to accept a living wage for their lowest paid workers.

By Marcus Mrowka, George Washington University

After living on a diet of fruit juice and blended vegetables for nearly ten days, Zack Pesavento looked forward to being able to eat again. He was one of nearly 30 students who ended their hunger strike Thursday after Georgetown University administration officials agreed to adopt a living wage for workers of $14.08 an hour.

“We are absolutely delighted that the university has decided that this is the right thing to do and that they’re ready to put their money where their mouth is,” he said.

Living Wage RallyPreviously, Georgetown’s lowest paid employees were earning $10.25 an hour, which, though well above the minimum wage, did not provide a living wage that gives a family the means to adequately meet its basic needs in the Washington, D.C. area without public or private assistance. The Georgetown Living Wage Coalition’s efforts were particularly focused on the University’s 450 contract employees, mostly janitorial, food service and security workers, who were at the lowest end of the payscale.

Pesavento notes that the hunger strike, which many saw as extreme, was a last resort for a group that had worked on the living wage issue for over three years with little or no success. “We did all sorts of research, we issued reports, we were as professional about it as we could be and when it finally came down to it they just weren’t willing to move and we felt that we had to take some sort of direct action to bring this to a conclusion,” he said.

On March 15, 26 students declared they would stop eating indefinitely until the university adopted a living wage policy. They camped out in a large tent in the middle of campus, getting other students to join their cause, singing, dancing, and trying to make the university listen. They held daily rallies and nightly vigils as well as routine meetings to update the community on their progress.

Living Wage RallyAt first, the university showed no signs of giving into the students demands. As the days wore on, some in the community began to worry about the deteriorating health of the students. On Saturday, one of the students was rushed to the hospital after reporting vision problems. He received intravenous fluids in the emergency room and was sent home.

After subsisting for over a week on a diet of just water and fruit and vegetable juices, the Georgetown Living Wage Coalition website announced that, collectively, the members had lost 270 pounds. “It definitely wears on you, and psychologically it starts to really drain on you,” Pesavento said. “Even starting with yesterday I was really starting to question myself.”

On Tuesday, the Coalition had a major rally with students, faculty, workers, and members of the labor community. Over 200 Teamsters arrived and paraded through the administration building – an event that the Coalition sees as the tipping point. On top of the rally, members of the AFL-CIO pledged to strike in solidarity with students if the administration did not meet their demands.

“There were AFL-CIO members as far up as New York and Boston who contacted us and said they were going to go on a hunger strike with us,” said Liam Stack, another member of the Coalition.

At 11:23 Wednesday night, Coalition members got a call from administration officials agreeing to a living wage package. In an email to the entire Georgetown University community, President John DeGioia said that he would agree to a policy effective July first ensuring that all full time University employees earn a minimum total compensation of at least $14.08 per hour, which was a compromise position from the $14.93 that the coalition initially pushed for.

The university also agreed to provisions that would allow workers to organize freely and to take advantage of university resources, including library privileges, ESL courses, transportation shuttles and general financial planning information. Stack said the university officials and the coalition still have to agree on how the university will measure appropriate wages in the future but he was happy with the outcome.

Pesavento hopes that the hunger strike, which he saw as necessary to achieve their outcomes, will have wider impact. “This is going to have ripple effects across the country,” he said, “and I look forward to the kinds of effects it has on other campuses.”

At a victory rally Thursday, students and labor leaders praised university officials for their decision. “This is an administration that could have said, ‘We have the power, we don’t have to pay attention to the students,’” said Joslyn Williams, a local labor leader who planned to join the strike if no compromise was made. “But what defines a person’s character is how they use the power they have at their disposal. The Georgetown administration has decided to use that power for the right course.”

One group noticeably absent from the victory rally was the workers students had fasted for. The Coalition says most of the workers have daytime hours and normally join their efforts in the evening.

At a time when religion and conservatism are often portrayed as tightly entwined, it was heartening to note that much of the victory rally focused on the role of religion in support of the living wage. Georgetown Senior Vice President Spiros Dimolitsas wrote in his final review of the matter that the living wage was “consistent with our Catholic and Jesuit identity.”

Rev. Ray Kemp led students in a prayer at the rally, saying, “You have led the way for Georgetown’s Jesuit and Catholic identity. May we always live up to the heritage that we claim. The heritage to be a friend of the poor, of the oppressed and an undying champion of the rights of all people.” Williams told the Coalition students that because of their sacrifice for the betterment of others, “Today’s victory could not have come on a better day than Holy Thursday.”

As students took their first bite of food in over a week Williams said, “This victory will not be just a footnote in the history of Georgetown, it will be a chapter.”

As for Pesavento, he was glad his diet would again consist of more than fruit juice. “It’s hard because you just want to pig out so much. I had a strawberry, and it was just so delicious,” he said. “Even the simplest food tastes so good right now.”

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