Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, March 25, 2005
Hunger-Striking Students at Georgetown U. Win a 'Living Wage' for Campus
By ELIZABETH F. FARRELL
IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO walk through the main square of Georgetown
University's campus this week without noticing the 20-foot banner that read
"Hunger Strike," and the white, domed tent beside it. Inside, a group of
students huddled in sleeping bags and vowed they would not eat until the
university gave its janitorial workers a "living wage."
A poster announced how much weight the 26 students had lost as a group. At
the end of their eighth day of fasting, the protesters had shed a total of
270 pounds -- about 50 pounds more than Brandon Bowman, the Georgetown
basketball team's 6-foot-8 star forward, weighs.
Administrators at the Roman Catholic university were alarmed by the protest
from the start. On the third day of the strike, Gladys T. Cisneros, a
graduate student involved in the Living Wage Coalition, a group that
coordinated the strike, said she saw James C. Welsh, the assistant vice
president for student health, scribbling down information from a homemade
poster that listed the names of the students participating in the hunger
Dr. Welsh passed the students' names on to Todd A. Olson, the dean of
students, who sent a letter, via Federal Express, to each of the students'
parents, urging them to tell their children to "begin eating right away."
Julia Green Bataille, a spokeswoman for Georgetown, said the March 19
letter had been motivated by concern for the students' health.
But the protesters countered that the administration was using health
issues as an excuse to thwart the strike and that the university had
violated their privacy rights. "It shocked us that they would do this,"
said Rachel Murray, a sophomore in Georgetown's School of Foreign Service
who participated in the strike. "We thought they would help us if we were
feeling bad, not threaten us for protesting."
The strike showed how students who publicly risk their health for a cause
can force a university into a thicket of competing legal obligations:
students' rights to privacy and protest on the one hand, and the
institution's responsibility to look out for their welfare on the other.
At the same time, the protesters proved the power of such a dramatic
demonstration: On Wednesday, the ninth day of the strike, Georgetown
University agreed to raise wages for the janitors. The strikers, weak but
giddy, declared victory on Thursday.
'The Usual Activist Stuff'
During the strike, concerns about the students' health were paramount for
administrators. In an e-mail message on Monday to the students, Dr. Welsh
said that unless they informed him that they were receiving more
nourishment than water, he would make unspecified recommendations to Dean
The students charged that during a previous discussion with them, Dr. Welsh
had threatened to put them on involuntary medical leave, which would
require them to withdraw from their classes. When students are engaging in
dangerous behavior and refuse medical help, universities sometimes force
them to take involuntary medical leave on the grounds that the students are
a danger to themselves and others.
Ms. Green Bataille defended the decision to mail the letter to parents, and
said the students had voluntarily given up their privacy rights when they
began their public demonstration.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, designed to protect
the privacy of college students, particularly their health and academic
records, typically prevents colleges from describing students' health to
their parents. But it allows college administrators to disregard privacy
rights if they think a student is in immediate danger, an exception Ms.
Green Bataille cited in explaining the university's decision to write to
the strikers' parents.
"As an academic entity, we're committed to a number of values, including
the rights of students to express their opinions," she said. "But it's also
paramount that we look after their safety and health, and in this
situation, those concerns outweighed the rights of freedom of expression."
Health concerns were a constant distraction for the protesters. On the
sixth day of the strike, Michael Wilson, a senior majoring in justice and
peace studies, had to go to Georgetown University Medical Center's
emergency room because of double vision and dizziness. Another student was
treated at a local hospital for chest pains.
Despite the complications, members of the Living Wage Coalition said they
knew what they were doing. "We wanted to avoid the usual activist stuff,"
said Ms. Murray. "We were warned to stay away from a hunger strike because
they aren't usually successful, but we just thought that hunger is such a
visible thing. And we're at a Catholic school, doing this during Holy Week,
which brings in the spiritual element to it."
In Catholicism, fasting, particularly during Lent, is viewed as a form of
penance and a means of becoming closer to God. The tradition stems from the
biblical account of Jesus' fasting during the 40 days leading up to his
Not all students on the campus were swayed by the strike, however. Some,
like the drunken students who yelled "I love food!" as they strolled by the
protesters' tent late one night, belittled the effort. On the eve of the
eighth day of the strike, two students stopped to sneer. One of the young
men said the protesters were "just a little socialist group that are out of
touch with the real world." His friend nodded: "They can't really help the
workers. ... They're just trying to get attention."
Ms. Cisneros, who helped plan the protest but did not fast, said the
demonstrators believed their greatest risk was that other students would
dismiss the group as "just a bunch of rich, ignorant college students." As
the daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants, Ms. Cisneros said, she
can understand why some might have reached that conclusion, because so few
of her classmates have a background similar to hers.
"Many students here want to help the workers because they have so many
privileges and feel guilty about it," Ms. Cisneros said. "And in a way
that's good, but it's also limiting because they don't know how to help in
a way that's empowering to the workers."
Ms. Cisneros, who is fluent in Spanish, acted as a liaison between the
protesters and the janitorial staff members, most of whom are immigrants
from El Salvador. In weekly meetings with them, Ms. Cisneros discussed the
students' strategies, to make sure that they are consistent with the
Going without food, she said, gave a sense of urgency to the cause. "The
longer we wait," she said, "the longer these workers are living day to day
and praying that they don't get sick or their car doesn't break down,
because those are problems they can't afford to take care of."
During the Living Wage Coalition's three-year campaign at Georgetown, the
students have enjoyed victories and suffered setbacks. In 2003 the group
sent 50 faculty members and administrators a "Living Wage Report"
explaining their cause. They also collected more than 1,000 student
signatures on a petition that urged the university to better compensate the
portion of the janitorial staff members who work for a subcontractor rather
than directly for the university.
By December 2004 the administration had offered the workers health benefits
and raised their wages to $8.50 per hour, up from $7.25. Yet that raise was
less than the "living wage" of $14.93 per hour that the coalition had
sought The students continued to push the administration, to little avail,
until March 14, the day 26 students stopped eating.
After that, the protesters won support from local religious officials, some
of whom publicly pressured Georgetown administrators to accept the
students' demands. On March 18, the fourth day of the hunger strike, John
J. DeGioia, Georgetown's president, met with two coalition members and
three of the city's religious leaders to discuss the issue.
Zach Pesavento, a freshman who attended the meeting, said it accomplished
little. But it did give him an opportunity to speak his mind. "I told Mr.
DeGioia that I came here because, in all the literature I received about
Georgetown, it said it was a Catholic school committed to social justice,"
Mr. Pesavento said.
Mr. DeGioia, through a university spokeswoman, declined to comment.
By the sixth day of the protest, television camera crews were swarming
Georgetown's campus. On the eighth day, local church and labor leaders,
along with Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, attended a
rally on the campus, where they vowed to begin a two-day "solidarity fast"
if the administration did not commit to a living wage for the workers by
midnight on Wednesday.
A few hours before that fast was to begin, however, Mr. DeGioia sent an
e-mail message to all Georgetown faculty members, staff members, and
students informing them that he had approved a policy to raise the workers'
wages to a minimum of $13 per hour by July 1, 2005, and to $14 per hour by
the same date in 2007. Those figures were "more or less what we we're
comfortable with," said one protester.
In his letter, Mr. DeGioia said it was "important to recognize that the
passionate engagement of students over the past two years" had been
instrumental in the university's decision. Spiros Dimolitsas, Georgetown's
senior vice president, drafted a formal agreement of the
wage-implementation policy and stated that the terms were "consistent with
our Catholic and Jesuit identity."
The protesters said they were shocked that Georgetown had met almost all of
their demands. Upon hearing the news, they ran around the campus to spread
the news to the janitorial workers on the night shift.
"We found them cleaning toilets and vacuuming classrooms, just doing the
things they do every night," said Mr. Pesavento. "And we told them and they
were thrilled. There were tears in their eyes, and they kept on saying
At noon on Thursday, the strikers broke their fast with a meal of
strawberries and bread. That afternoon, some of them met with Mr. DeGioia
and labor leaders to formally accept the wage-increase agreement.
Although the students remained bewildered by their success, Mr. Pesavento
said his group had succeeded because it took such an extreme measure.
"The hunger strike ended up being the right thing for Georgetown because
our argument was that this was a moral issue," said Mr. Pesavento. "People
were so surprised that we were willing to put ourselves on the line like
this, and it ended up working in our favor."