In the wake of the sweet victory at Georgetown–the result of a remarkable two-week hunger strike–students across the country sprung into a “Week of Action” for workers’ rights. According to the Student Labor Action Project, students from over 250 schools participated in mass actions beginning on March 31st, thebirthday of Cesar Chavez, and ending on April 4th–the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death. But for students at the Washington University of St. Louis, the struggle had just begun.
On that day, fifteen students occupied the admissions office and began a 19-day sit-in. Their demand was that the school’s janitors be paid a living wage and their argument hit a familiar key: at a school with a multi-billion dollar endowment, it was unconscionable for university employees to be paid eight dollars an hour. Members of Wash U’s Student Worker Alliance began organizing a campaign for fair wages in 2003, and last year–after St. Louis Board of Aldermen established $9.79 per hour with full benefits as the city’s living wage–they requested that the university comply with these standards. After repeated rejections, the students opted for direct action.
A week into the sit-in, a dozen protesters upped the ante and began a hunger strike. On the second day of the hunger strike, the national organizing director for the AFL-CIO, Stewart Acuff arrived at the school to show solidarity with the students. “We’re talking about young people who are motivated by a clear passion for justice,” said Acuff to a crowd at the campus. “In the case of Washington University, it is a remarkably selfless passion.”
As the campaign continued, support from influential figures, including former Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards, poured in from throughout the country. By the final days of the sit-in, over 200 faculty members had signed a petition backing the students’ demands, and local congregations were staging 24-hour vigils. On April 22nd, the WashU officials finally agreed not only to pay its workers a living wage, but to join the Worker’s Rights Consortium, an international monitoring group that protects the rights of workers who make university-themed apparel.
According to the Washington Post, unions are increasingly relying on student movements for support, “not only because universities are vulnerable to moral arguments in ways that businesses often are not, but because they can’t be fired.” In a time in which only 13 percent of the country’s private-sector workforce belongs to a union, student movements like those at WashU and Georgetown are filling a critical void.
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Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.