Hunger Striking for a Living Wage
March 18, 2005
March 18, 2005 -- Twenty-two students at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., stopped eating four days ago. They have resorted to a hunger strike after years of less drastic attempts to persuade the university to pay all of its workers a living wage. How long will they go without food? "As long as it takes," is the answer that at least some of them give.
Mary Nagle is one of a half dozen students organizing events every day to assist the hunger strikers. "Poverty wages are ridiculous," the students chant at rallies. "My Georgetown is better than this!"
Georgetown University's president is paid more than a living wage. According to tax forms, the president's salary rose from $345,529 in 1998 to $587,922 in 2003. No doubt it's higher now. Currently, in 2005, subcontracted workers at Georgetown need be paid only $8.50 per hour. Silvia Garcia, who for two years has worked as a janitor at Georgetown for P&R Enterprises, said she earns $9.05 per hour. That's $18,824 per year, if she works fulltime with no time off.
Other janitors at Georgetown who are employed directly by the university, and who are unionized, are paid at least $12.00 per hour, or $24,960 for a full year's work. These rates of pay do not approach a tenth of the president's. And they fall short of what many of the workers need to pay their bills. The hunger striking students are demanding, on behalf of the workers, a living wage of $14.93 per hour in total compensation, including any benefits.
Silvia Garcia said that such an increase in pay would transform her life. Her son, Roberto Garcia, dropped out of high school a year and a half ago in order to work, because the family needed the income. (It gives new meaning to "Leave no child behind," doesn't it?) Roberto Garcia, like his mother, works as a janitor at Georgetown for P&R, earning $9.05. Both he and his mother would prefer to see him return to school. Mother and son both work fulltime. Their husband and father works elsewhere in town as a janitor earning $9.80. The three incomes are not sufficient to support the six-person family. They recently had to move further out of town in order to find cheaper rent, but they still struggle to pay it.
The current wages at Georgetown are far too low, Silvia Garcia said in Spanish. "People here work two jobs and leave their children alone. With a living wage, they could dedicate more time to their children and only have one job."
"They're great!" Silvia Garcia said in Spanish of the student hunger strikers. "We are very happy that the students have decided to help us, because no one will listen to us. The university has to listen to the demands of the students."
Garcia said she was confident that the students would win a living wage. "Faith is the last thing you lose," she said, "and we have everything to gain."
From left, workers Roberto Garcia and Silvia Garcia, and students Gladys Cisneros and Liam Stack.
Most of the students are confident as well, although they say they cannot be sure what the university administration will do.
"I'm willing to go as long as it takes," said hunger striker Liz O'Callahan. She said she'd lost 5 pounds so far. She is helping to monitor the health of her fellow hunger strikers. Some, she said, have experienced headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and vision loss. Most prepared for the hunger strike, physically and mentally, beginning in January, first increasing their natural fat intake, eating more nuts and avocados, then more fruits and vegetables, and immediately prior to the strike, taking laxatives.
Gladys Cisneros is a student assisting the hunger strikers and serving as a liaison to the workers. "I speak Spanish and come from a working class background myself," she explained. She said that if the strike lasts until graduation in the first week in May, many students will boycott graduation.
The president of the university, Cisneros said, teaches a class called "Ethics and Global Poverty," while the Vice President for Strategic Development teaches one called "Human Rights: Culture and Crisis." But, said Cisneros, "when it comes to them actually changing something, they don't want to do it."
While opponents of living wage proposals, at Georgetown as everywhere else, argue that wages should be "set by the market," Cisneros points out that "the market" changes its mind when you pass through a wall between two buildings on campus, one of them cleaned by workers earning $8.50 and the other cleaned by workers earning $12.50 - a situation suggesting that wages are actually set by unionization and collective bargaining.
Hunger striker Elena Stewart is quickly losing weight and has become nauseous, dizzy, and frustrated, she said. "I view this as a mental and spiritual exercise in active resistance," she said. "I don't see this as passive at all. I try to translate physical pain into mental commitment."
Stewart is committed to hunger striking for two weeks. Beyond that, she will support her fellow students who continue, if the living wage has not yet been won.
Georgetown is a Catholic university, and Stewart, like many of the strikers, describes hunger striking in Catholic terms: "This is an exercise in spiritual will. One's belief in God and in the fundamental dignity and goodness of every person must be grounded in action - not just wishing for things to change, but being willing to take on suffering. It's like the picking up of the cross. Some people think that suffering like this doesn't make sense, but I think suffering makes perfect sense."
Elena Stewart, hunger striker.
Pedro Cruz speaks with a heavy Puerto Rican accent. Asked why he's hunger striking, he explains that his mother used to do the same kind of work as the underpaid workers at Georgetown. He has lost 11 pounds, he said, become dizzy and nauseated, and is not sleeping well. He is considering drinking juice rather than just water, but has kept to only water thus far.
"Physically, I don't feel well," Cruz said, "but spiritually I feel stronger than ever, because I feel that we are winning." Cruz said he would hunger strike for at least two weeks, if needed.
Pedro Cruz, hunger striker.
Zack Pesavento is hunger striking and says he will "keep going as long as it takes." He said he had gone through "a lot of spiritual and mental preparation. So, I'm just prepared to go as long as I need to. If I end up in the hospital, I guess that's the end of it."
Pesavento said he has a friendship with a woman from El Salvador who cleans his dormitory. "She tells me about her day-to-day life," he said, "and that puts a face on it." Many of the workers who will see a pay hike if a living wage policy is enacted openly support the campaign and stop by the students' tent each day. "When I see the workers stop by," said Zack, "that brightens up my day."
Zack Pesavento, hunger striker.
Learn about and support the Georgetown Living Wage Campaign here:
David Swanson is a member of the board of Progressive Democrats of America. His website is http://www.davidswanson.org
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