SWA celebrates one year anniversary of sit-in
“What do we want?” shouted Reverend Michael Vosler to the small crowd gathered at Grace United Methodist Church on Monday morning. His audience knew the answer too well. Wearing the orange armbands that became a symbol of civil disobedience on campus one year ago, seven sit-in veterans boomed back with, “A living wage!” – a response they had chanted countless times at the Washington University administration. And when did they want it? “Now.”
With a cake bearing a single candle and statements to the local press from community leaders, University workers and sit-in participants marked the one-year anniversary of the 19-day occupation of the Admissions Office and the Brookings Quadrangle by the Student Workers Alliance (SWA). The sit-in, which included a five-day hunger strike, ended on April 22, 2005, with a written agreement from the University that addressed students’ demands for a living wage and increased benefits for all University employees.
“We teach economics in the classroom, and, by virtue of its community, [the University is] saying to students that it’s all right for these workers to be earning these low wages,” said Vosler, co-chair of the St. Louis Workers’ Rights Board. “But the students are saying it’s not all right, and the community is saying it’s not all right. Washington University is capable of better and greater things.”
Monday’s gathering also marked the release of a report from a panel of community leaders who have been researching the University’s actions towards fulfilling their agreement.
“We were pleased to find that Washington University appears to be in compliance with the agreement that ended the sit-in,” said Missouri State Representative Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who serves on the panel.
Among the University’s accomplishments, according to the panel’s findings, are its yearly commitments of $500,000 toward increased wages and benefits for workers. So far, this commitment has raised the wage floor for all campus workers from as low as $6.50 per hour to $8.25 per hour.
In addition, the University has provided health care services at La Clinica, a free bilingual clinic in south St. Louis, for workers without health insurance and formed two committees with SWA representation to continually discuss the issues raised by the sit-in. Chappelle-Nadal also cited the University’s issuance of MetroLink passes to all of its employees as evidence of its commitment to decrease travel and parking costs for workers.
“However, that commitment alone is not the standard by which we can consider Washington University to be a model employer in the St. Louis Community,” said Chappelle-Nadal. “Many of the worker issues raised in that initial proposal are still unaddressed.”
Many of the University’s workers, for example, still do not earn a living wage, said Chappelle-Nadal. A living wage, as defined by St. Louis City ordinance, would be $10.30 per hour with benefits and $12.90 per hour without benefits. In addition, said Chappelle-Nadal, many workers do not have adequate health care and live “in a climate of fear.that limits their free choice to organize unions.”
Lorraine Anderson and Vera Johnson, who both work in janitorial services at the University, represented their fellow workers at the event.
“We work very hard,” said Anderson. “Last night, between my partner and I, we cleaned 59 blackboards, not to mention blinds, desks, everything. For my hard work, I earned $8.60 an hour.”
The $8.60 per hour she now gets paid is due to the raise Anderson got after the sit-in. Prior to the sit-in, she earned $7.75 per hour. But this increase in pay, she said, is not enough. Anderson’s daughter passed away last year, leaving her to raise two grandchildren.
“I just want these kids to have a good life,” said Anderson. “If I made a few more dollars an hour, which the city of St. Louis says is a living wage, I could afford to take the kids out to dinner once in a while. I’m coming closer to retirement, but I’m not afraid to stand up with [the SWA]. We need to make these jobs better than we found them.”
Hostility towards worker organization, Anderson and Johnson said, might have been why she and Johnson were the only workers in attendance at the event. The others, Anderson said, were probably “afraid.” During the sit-in itself, students attempted to dissuade campus workers from taking part, fearing that the workers might face repercussions.
“When they were doing the sit-in, they didn’t want us to rally with them,” said Johnson, who works nights at the University and joined the protesters during the day. “But when we’re off work on our own time, [our employers] can’t tell us we can’t rally with students trying to get us a decent wage. I’m here today to support the living wage and support the students too for helping us.”
During a question-and-answer session that followed the panel’s statements, the student participants were asked if they would be willing to bear a higher tuition as a result of their efforts.
“The tuition goes up $1,300 to $1,800 every year for seemingly no apparent reason,” said junior Meredith Davis. “If you divide the cost [for higher wages] among all students, it’s less than $100 per person, which is less than the activities fee.”
Junior Sam White said that, if necessary, she’d take part in another sit-in. The SWA might have to be innovative, however, if it hopes to make a big impression, she said.
“The thing is, the protest has to put the administration out of its comfort zone, and a sit-in might not do that again,” said White. “It might not be strategic a second time. But if it were, I would..I still want a living wage. And I still don’t care if I get kicked out.”
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