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Student Hunger Strike Secures Living Wage for Georgetown Workers

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After a three-year campaign, students at Georgetown University have won their fight to secure living wages for university workers. The campaign–known as the Georgetown Living Wage Coalition–culminated in a nine-day hunger strike by over twenty students before the university accepted almost all of the campaign’s ten demands. We speak with one of the students who participated in the hunger strike. [includes rush transcript]

After a three-year campaign, students at Georgetown University have won their fight to secure living wages for university workers.

The campaign–known as the Georgetown Living Wage Coalition–culminated in a nine-day hunger strike by over twenty students. Two students were hospitalized in the action.

Yesterday, the university accepted almost all of the campaign’s ten demands. The minimum wage for campus employees will be raised to a living wage of about 15 dollars an hour. Currently some subcontractors are earning less than $9 dollars an hour.

In recent days, the students attracted support from DC labor and religious communities. AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney released a statement applauding the hunger strike campaign and some faculty members have shown support.

  • Mike Wilson, a senior at Georgetown University majoring in Justice and Peace Studies. He is part of the Georgetown Living Wage Coalition and was on hunger strike for five days.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now in Washington, D.C. by Mike Wilson, a senior at Georgetown University, majoring in Justice and Peace Studies, part of the Georgetown Living Wage Coalition. He was on the hunger strike for five days. Welcome to Democracy Now!

MIKE WILSON: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this campaign? Can you talk about what you did, and how you won?

MIKE WILSON: Yeah. Well, we began about three years ago. We had been a group that mainly worked on global sweatshop issues, and we had started looking at the situation of workers on campus, because we had gotten Georgetown to join a group called the Workers’ Rights Consortium that was monitoring, independently monitoring, factories where Georgetown apparel was made. So we started speaking to workers on campus to see what the labor conditions were like there. We started to learn how little workers at Georgetown made. People at the time were making as little as $6.15 an hour, which was the D.C. minimum wage at the time. So we started to talk to them about what we could do about it and started to have conversations among ourselves. The first thing we began doing was providing volunteer English as a second language classes for a lot of the mainly Spanish speaking workers. We started providing worker appreciation breakfasts on Friday mornings, and then we started talking to our administration about what we could do to improve the working conditions in Georgetown and raise the wages. The first reaction from the administration was to just put us into a committee process that seemed to be endless. We released a report two years ago about the conditions at Georgetown that included the ten demands that we had been asking for since then. What basically happened was about a week-and-a-half ago, we had set a deadline for the latest committee we had been a part of to commit to a policy that we could all agree on, and they refused to do so. The committee that we had been working with continued to refuse to make decisions throughout the entire process. But, so we decided to start the hunger strike campaign to help the university understand the urgency of the situation. We felt that they were not understanding the urgency of the situation when it was just the workers’ lives that we were talking about, so we felt like we had to put our own lives and our own health at stake to make the university understand the urgency.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You appear to have won not only a commitment around the wages, but around several other issues, as well. You were pushing for the university to remain absolutely neutral and in terms of the possibility of unions being — of the workers being able to unionize. You had demands about their job security. What was the total package of issues that you were able to be successful on?

MIKE WILSON: Well yeah, what the university originally was focusing on was the wage and how much it would cost and things like that. But we were trying to push the idea that this policy had to be more than just about the wage. It had to be about a new way of looking at employment in Georgetown. So, we were asking Georgetown to commit to prioritizing full time employment. We didn’t want Georgetown to be able to just start hiring people part-time to do work that could be done as full-time and keeping members of the community and making sure that they were getting paid these wages and having these benefits. One of the big issues was the union issue. We wanted Georgetown to commit itself and its contractors to a policy of neutrality in union campaigns, because we felt that this wage was important in our fighting for it with the workers at Georgetown was important. We wanted the workers themselves to feel empowered so that they could continue this fight after those mostly working on the campaign graduate and leave. We wanted the workers to keep the power. And so, we had been demanding, especially since Marriott Corporation is one of the contractors at Georgetown. They provide food service for us, and we wanted to insure that workers for Marriott, one of the biggest union busting companies in the country, would have the — Georgetown would be holding Marriott to this policy of neutrality. Other things we were asking for is insuring that Georgetown wouldn’t just cut these contracts, lose all of the workers we had been working with and start directly hiring totally different people, so one of the demands we were also asking for was to insure that if things like that were to happen, Georgetown would prioritize the work of the contractors. We also wanted to insure that all the contract workers had access to the same kinds of benefits that the full time workers have, such as like access to university sponsored English as a second language programs, like transportation shuttles, the library, classes, things like that. So there were a lot of like non-wage benefits that we were asking for that for the first two years of the campaign, the university just didn’t even want to address.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the organized labor? John Sweeney came out obviously in support of you, but did you receive cooperation and support from the unions in the city throughout the campaign, or did it come later on or what?

MIKE WILSON: We have been keeping them updated on what we had been doing throughout the campaign. They were very helpful in terms of resources and support. When we started the hunger strike, when we decided we needed to take that step, we met with the Metro Labor Council President Josh Williams here in D.C. and talked to him about ways that they could provide help. One of the best actions that we did during the campaign was this past — or this Tuesday, we had really our biggest rally in Red Square, which is in the center of campus. We had had Josh Williams and Eleanor Holmes Norton and Richard Trumka from the AFL-CIO speak, and they were able to turn out a whole bunch of union members, which we then led a march to the administration building and sort of took over the lobbies of the president’s office for about a half an hour, 45 minutes, and tried to get the president to meet with some of the union officials. And when he wouldn’t, the union officials came out and said that they would start a solidarity fast with us on Thursday morning if the university hadn’t agreed to this proposal by Wednesday night, and the university came out with the proposal that they — we eventually agreed to at 11:30 on Wednesday night. So, we think that they were very influential and very helpful in this campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Wilson, I want to thank you very much for joining us. Majoring in Justice and Peace Studies at Georgetown University.

MIKE WILSON: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Was one of those who fought to insure that workers have a living wage.

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