St. Louis student sit-in gets attention

Protest seeks better pay for contract staff.
Wednesday, April 13, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:17 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Washington University students taking part in the ninth day of a sit-in seeking higher pay for the university’s contract workers were notified Tuesday by the school that they were violating the university’s judicial code.

The students received the notices a day after about 15 students launched a hunger strike and as their efforts are drawing support from national politicians and labor activists.

Several of the 13 students who have stayed at the undergraduate admissions office since April 4 were concerned they could be arrested, face disciplinary action or suffer other consequences for not showing up for classes. But they said their resolve remains to make sure service employees — janitors, food service workers and groundskeepers at the school — receive better wages and benefits.

“First of all, it’s just a basic human cause,” said sophomore Irene Compadre, 19, an architecture major. The Little Rock, Ark., resident is participating in the sit-in and the hunger strike. “These are the workers who clean up after us every day. To know that they don’t make enough, that’s just not fair.”

She was among the students sitting in the hall or the undergraduate admissions office, where backpacks and blankets, water bottles and pillows filled the floor.

During the sit-in, the students are doing schoolwork and grabbing a few hours of sleep a night.

The protesters said they’ve been using baby wipes to keep clean and washing their hair in bathroom sinks; several hadn’t had a change of clothes in days. Labor organizations and others brought them food before the hunger strike began; not all the protesters are taking part in the hunger strike.

On Tuesday, an AFL-CIO official visited the St. Louis campus to let students know they had the support of the 13-million-member organization.

“We are fully, incredibly supportive and grateful for what the students are doing,” said Stewart Acuff, organizing director for the Washington-based federation of labor unions. “More and more workers are working for lower wages and struggling to make ends meet.”

The student protesters are demanding that contract workers make a living wage of at least $10.05 an hour with benefits to allow them to support themselves and two other people.

On Monday night, the students said, the university gave them an 11:30 p.m. deadline to leave the admissions office. A posted letter told them their unauthorized occupation is disrupting the university’s work. New letters arrived Tuesday, addressed individually to several protesters.

The administration offered Monday to commit $500,000, beginning July 1, toward improving wage and benefit packages for the university’s contract employees.

But student organizers said their research shows that the university would have to spend about $2.4 million annually to provide improved salary and benefits packages.

The administration also called for a continued dialogue with the Student Worker Alliance — the group protesting the wage levels — and the establishment of a group that could identify resources to assist lower-paid employees. It also pointed out past efforts asking outside contractors to demonstrate that they pay competitive wages.

Chancellor Mark Wrighton also issued a letter to the university community, calling the students’ peaceful protest “an important part of the democratic process” with a long, rich history at the school.

“We have heard the students’ concerns, and we care about the same issues related to the contract workers at Washington University,” Wrighton wrote.

Some said they were concerned school officials were taking conflicting approaches, saying publicly they respected their efforts while making plans to discipline the students for them.

The university is well-known for hosting three presidential debates since October 1992, including one last fall between President Bush and Democratic Sen. John Kerry.

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