washingtonpost.com  > Education > Higher Education

GU Activists Go Hungry To Help Janitors

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page B01

Inside a white bubble tent, in the heart of Georgetown University, Diane Foglizzo, a brown-haired, strong-willed senior, is on the sixth day of her hunger strike. She said she's lost 10 pounds on a meager diet of water and orange juice. Another student activist, weakened by hunger, was rushed to the hospital Saturday.

But Foglizzo looked neither exhausted nor worried yesterday. She and her comrades were making buttons and preparing protest plays, their bodies seemingly nourished by their cause.

Hunger striker Diane Foglizzo says she wants better wages for janitors, "who make it possible for us to go to class." (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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It's a cause unlike those of previous generations of campus activists, who've protested against the Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa, Asian sweatshops and the war in Iraq. Foglizzo is starving herself for those closer to home: Georgetown University's janitors.

"These are people we see everyday, who make it possible for us to go to class," said Foglizzo, 21, who is majoring in culture and politics. "We can affect their lives directly now."

She and 24 other Georgetown students participating in the hunger strike want to boost hourly salaries and job and wage security for the university's 450 contract employees, mostly custodial, food service and security workers.

The workers receive on average $11.33 an hour, which includes wages and health benefits, a Georgetown spokeswoman said.

The activists said that is not enough. They want the university to put in place a plan that will pay workers "a living wage" of $13.95 to $14.93 an hour by July.

"The main demand is that Georgetown commit to paying its workers a wage that allows them to support their families with one fulltime job," said Liam Stack, a senior majoring in Muslim-Christian relationships.

Stack added that 143 workers at the university hired by contractors are paid less than the living wage, along with 25 hired directly by the university.

Georgetown officials said they are committed to fairly compensating the university's workers. An advisory committee is weighing a proposal by Georgetown Senior Vice President Spiros Dimolitsas to phase in wage increases to a minimum of $14 an hour by summer 2007.

After that, wages would increase annually, taking into account inflation. In all, it would cost the university nearly $550,000 over the next two years.

If $14.93 was set as the minimum hourly wage right away for all its workers, including its 4,500 direct employees, it would add $1.8 million annually to the university budget, said Julie Green Bataille, a university spokeswoman.

Student activists said money should not be an issue. The university, they noted, raised $15 million for a new boathouse on the Potomac and is seeking $120 million for a business school.

"When we want to build a boathouse, we find the money," said Mike Wilson, a hunger striker who was taken to the hospital with vision problems. "This is enough of a priority to find the money."

Started by two students three years ago, the campaign has grown into Georgetown Living Wage Coalition. Its Web site is studentorgs.georgetown.edu/solidarity/lw/.

In addition to those on hunger strike, about 15 students keep the tent tidy, provide medical support and try to attract media attention.

Some have campaigned for global causes but said they feel more fulfillment fighting for the rights of those in their immediate community.

"It's almost hypocritical to be helping other people around the world and turn a blind eye to the problems of people here on campus," said Gladys Cisneros, 22, a graduate student in Latin American studies.

For the past five months, Jonathan Garcia, 20, has worked as a janitor on the night shift. His brother and mother work there, too. He said he receives $9.05 an hour, excluding benefits, which is not enough for him to quit his second job. "I appreciate what they are doing," said Garcia, who is from El Salvador. "They're trying to help us get paid a bit more. They are nice students."

The activists also teach English to the janitors during lunch breaks. They've organized picnics for the workers and their families. The workers, in turn, have brought water with vitamins for the hunger strikers and have attended protest rallies.

"We're getting to see the full impact of the work we are doing," said Janessa Landeck, 22, a senior. "We're helping them organize themselves."

Cisneros said she's noticed a difference in the workers.

"They feel empowered and emboldened," she said. "They are no longer looking behind their backs to see if the manager is looking."

In recent days, the activists have attracted support from some influential corners. Last week, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney released a statement applauding the hunger strike campaign. And some faculty members have shown support.

So have students at other universities. Stack said their peers at Swarthmore, Cornell, University of Wisconsin at Madison and American University, as well as some Georgetown students and alumni overseas, have gone on "solidarity fasts" to support the effort.

University officials, however, said they are concerned about the students. They've sent letters to the parents of the activists urging them to persuade their children to start eating.

It hasn't worked. "My mother told me the letter was outrageous and out of line," Foglizzo said.

When asked how long she plans to starve herself, she replied:

"Until we have a living wage."

Staff writers Maureen Fan and Susan Kinzie contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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