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A win for the living wage

Congratulations to the students of the Living Wage Coalition at Georgetown University, who successfully shamed the administration into granting a raise and new benefits to Georgetown staff members. After nine days of a widely publicized hunger strike, the Georgetown administration agreed to almost all of the students’ demands.

While some have criticized the students’ method of protest, which sent two hunger strikers to the hospital, the students’ undeniable dedication to workers’ rights should inspire students across the nation to examine the labor situations at their own universities. Here at the University, student, faculty and staff pressure will be crucial in fighting for higher wages in the next year as the University restructures its employment policies under its new autonomy.

Members of the Georgetown Living Wage Coalition had been engaged in negotiations for the past three years, with little action from the administration. On March 15, 25 students vowed to go hungry until the administration agreed to the increased wages, job security and the right to organize that the students demanded. The administration’s final offer stopped short of the students’ original demand for a wage of $14.93 an hour, which the students calculated was the cost of living in Washington, D.C. However, Georgetown agreed to raise wages to $13.00 this year and $14.00 next year, a significant improvement from the current wage of $11.33.

Jan Cornell, president of the staff union at U.Va., said in an e-mail that while she would not condone action that might physically harm students, she applauds the efforts of the Georgetown hunger strikers, calling the outcome “a huge win for the living-wage movement.”

Here at the University, the current minimum wage for staff members is only $8.20 an hour, while contract workers often make even less. Many employees already must work two jobs simply to support their families, and the University’s move toward privatization could leave them even more vulnerable to exploitation.

Under the legislation that emerged from the proposed charter initiative, the Restructured Higher Education Financial and Administrative Operations Act, the University can develop a new human resources program that would release the University from several state requirements regarding wages and benefits. Although the new legislation calls for state oversight, the staff union is concerned that the employees will ultimately receive smaller raises and fewer benefits under the new agreement.

State oversight is not enough to protect workers, who were underpaid even before the new legislation. We cannot simply trust the state to adequately address employee interests. The University’s new autonomy must be accompanied by increased consciousness among all members of the University community. Cornell believes that while University students are generally supportive of the union and of the living-wage movement, “they don’t understand … that contract workers at U.Va. still do not earn a living wage, and that the living wage at U.Va. of about $8.20 an hour is truly pathetic.”

College is often viewed as a time of preparation for the day when we can finally change the world, but the students at Georgetown understood that a commitment to social justice begins here and now, with the people in front of us. In their campaign, the Georgetown Living Wage Coalition pointed out the hypocrisy of the Georgetown president and vice president, who taught courses on ethics and poverty while refusing to adequately respond to the struggles of the workers on their own campus.

Likewise, many students are immersed in studies of inequality and injustice while they feel powerless to change even the circumstances around them. But as the Georgetown hunger strikers demonstrated, University students don’t have to spend these years in a bubble, removed from their communities. Here at the University, the new legislation could result in more exploitation of the staff, or it could be an opportunity for positive change. It truly depends on us.

Cari Lynn Hennessy Cavalier Daily, University Virginia.