Collectively, they had lost 270 pounds. It was their ninth day without food. At least one of them had to be rushed to the hospital. But for the 25 students who went on hunger strike at Georgetown University, the answer to the question, “How long will you starve yourself?” was simple: “Until we get a living wage!” The students’ determination along with the support of numerous workers and community members paid off—at 11:23p.m. March 23, Georgetown announced a “Just Employment Policy.” This policy implemented a living wage of $14 an hour for all Georgetown workers, including contract workers.
A living wage, like the one recently implemented at Georgetown, ensures that all workers are able to afford basic living costs such as rent, food and health care. The living wage in Washington, D.C. is high because the cost of living in that area is especially steep, and activists pressured the University to take this into account. We currently have a living wage both in the city and county of Durham that is adjusted for the cost of living in this area and will increase as living costs continue to rise. Our living wage, like the one at Georgetown, includes contractors who do business with the city and county. The Durham living wage, like the living wage at Georgetown, did not spring from the benevolence of those in power. Durham passed a living wage ordinance because hardworking members of Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods pressured our leaders to do the right thing.
Recently, Durham CAN, Duke Students Against Sweatshops, Duke workers and concerned community members have come together to demand that Duke implement a living wage for all of its workers. While Duke’s move to set a wage floor of $10 an hour for workers it officially employs will certainly help some Duke workers, it is not a living wage by any means. First, this wage increase is not indexed to increase to keep pace with living costs in this area. Second, Duke failed to include contract workers under the umbrella of this wage increase. Strangely, the same University that has been a pioneer in the anti-sweatshop movement and forced companies to make changes for their workers is now telling us that they have no control over companies here on campus! Most disturbingly, this actually gives Duke an incentive to outsource workers. The recent outsourcing of Duke University Health System laundry to Angelica and the wage and benefit cuts that followed only further illustrate this point. Third, this wage increase does not make any improvements in benefits or working conditions. Durham CAN and Students Against Sweatshops are united in demanding Duke address these issues as well.
Why would Georgetown students starve themselves for nine days to win a living wage? Why do Durham CAN and Duke Students Against Sweatshops care so much about this issue? A living wage is vitally important to all communities for many reasons, but the first and foremost forms the slogan of Durham CAN’s living wage campaign: “A living wage buys a better bottom line for everyone.” While it may first appear that living wages are merely an act of charity from those in power, better wages actually benefit the entire community by increasing worker productivity and decreasing worker absenteeism as well as stresses that result from inadequate wages. Workers making substandard wages are often forced to rely on public assistance, thereby draining the community of resources that should have been provided by the employer in the first place. In the case of Duke, a tax-exempt organization, Durham taxpayers must pick up where Duke leaves off. Duke already acknowledges its linked fate with the rest of Durham through its Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership and its encouragement of Duke students to “give back” to their community. President Richard Brodhead himself believes, “Universities and their communities may think they lead separate lives, but in truth their lives are inseparable, and we all benefit when we work together for the common good.” A living wage would be the true manifestation of such a belief.
Secondly, even though Duke stands to benefit from implementing a living wage, it also has a moral imperative to do so. Georgetown largely based its decision on its status not only as an elite private university, but also as a school that prides itself in moral leadership given the proud Jesuit tradition of social justice and equality. Duke also holds itself to a high moral standard and strives to be a university not only nurturing the “intellectual growth” of its students “but also [their] development as adults committed to high ethical standards and full participation as leaders in their communities.” Convincing Duke to live up to these ideals has always been a task that student, community and worker leaders have pursued with gusto.
Thirdly, a living wage empowers workers to make their own workplace and community decisions. One of the most heartening results of the Georgetown living wage campaign was the way students, community members and workers all came together to pressure the University to do the right thing. Workers felt emboldened to speak out against poverty wages and unjust conditions as they brought water and vitamins to hungry striking students. Here at Duke last Thursday, a pilgrimage came through Durham to remember the courage of slain Archbishop Oscar Romero and remind ourselves of the importance of working for the rights of the poor. We marched up to President Brodhead’s office—toddlers, priests, workers, students and community leaders—to demand that Duke implement a living wage and uphold workplace rights for all its workers. Brodhead was polite as he took our questions, but like many leaders before him he told us to be patient, that it wasn’t really his decision and couldn’t we all come back for his scheduled office hours sometime?
A baby sounded its scream of protest as we stood unimpressed. “Workers rights can’t wait!” shot out from the crowd as we descended down the Allen Building stairs. This is only the beginning, and if you would like to be a part of the movement for a living wage and justice at Duke please contact Duke Students Against Sweatshops at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bridget Newman is a Trinity senior. Her column usually appears every other Thursday.