Students hungry for justice for campus workers

Commentary

WASHINGTON — Georgetown University is the new battleground for social justice in our nation. Twenty-two student activists, members of the Living Wage Coalition, took the heroic step of declaring a hunger strike here March 15. They vowed to continue their protest until the university president, John DeGioia, agrees to a “living wage” for all workers on campus.

As a student at Georgetown University, I can attest to the great lengths to which the administration goes to proclaim its mission, its God-given duty to care for the sick, the homeless and the poor throughout the world. As one of the most prestigious Catholic and Jesuit institutions in the United States, it prides itself on its advocacy of causes of social justice. While it preaches about this commitment to international social justice, however, it seems to have forgotten about those of our own community, the workers who clean our bathrooms, mow the laws, trim the bushes, and cook our food.

A living wage would take into account inflation and cost of living indexes in determining employee pay, giving the workers a $14.93 minimum hourly pay in wages and benefits, effective immediately. Most campus workers currently earn between $9 and $10 an hour.

These workers are finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet in the Washington metropolitan area. In a document circulated by the striking Living Wage Coalition members, a worker is recorded as saying, “I earn about $600 every pay check — that’s every two weeks. My rent for my home is over $1,500 a month! … I am very lucky no one in my family has been seriously ill, because I don’t know how we could pay for hospital expenses. … If we could get a raise, even a living wage, it would help so much. We could live a little more freely.”

It is in hearing such testimony that one comes to see the gross injustice the university is inflicting upon these workers by refusing to adequately compensate them for their labor. It is made all the more worse when one finds out that President DeGioia, the man who, each year, gives a speech to incoming freshmen on Catholic moral teaching, gave himself a $120,000 raise last year. He is now one of the highest-paid university presidents in the nation, with an income of $600,000.

These actions of DeGioia contrast with the total selflessness and humility of the student hunger strikers, young men and women who, though all less than 22 years of age, are willing to risk their lives for the ideals of equality, compassion and solidarity. Their sacrifice has not gone unnoticed. The hunger strike has drawn in such forces as the AFL-CIO national leadership, United Students Against Sweatshops, Jobs with Justice, religious leaders and other clergy.

The administration, facing near total opposition among its own professors and the Jesuit priests of the university, is maneuvering behind the scenes to bring this episode to an end as quickly as possible. It seems as if the hunger strikers have the upper hand, but it is still absolutely necessary to keep up the pressure on DeGioia and others demanding that they agree to the living wage.

I hope to write next week of a successful end to this struggle.

The author (matt1859@aol.com) is a freshman at Georgetown University and a member of Georgetown Social Democrats.