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GU Protesters Savor Win -- and a Meal

Nine-Day Hunger Strike Resulted in Better Compensation for Contract Workers

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page B04

After nine days of water, dizziness, vomiting and protest, Georgetown University freshman Jack Mahoney ate a strawberry yesterday just before noon. "It was great," he said, beaming. "It was amazing."

More than 20 students ended their nine-day hunger strike for higher wages and better benefits for university contract workers yesterday, dancing in a ring, singing along with a guitar, cheering and eating strawberries, one slow bite at a time. They had duct-taped a blue banner over their huge "Living Wage" sign: The new one announced "We all won!"

Georgetown University hunger strikers -- including Mary Nagle, left, Ginny Leavell, Diane Foglizzo and Maya Zwerdling -- celebrate their victory. (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Po St)

The fight for better working conditions on campus has resonated across the country, said Jamin B. Raskin, chairman of the Maryland State Higher Education Labor Relations Board, and some experts expect to see more clashes. "We're living in an era where a lot of universities are acting just like corporations," Raskin said, "and students are insisting the universities stay true to their intellectual and moral heritage."

Yesterday, after more than a week without food, the Georgetown protesters thought they had hit a brick wall with administrators. "We had a long conversation about whether we could continue," Mahoney said, and he steeled himself for a much longer fast, more weakness, more discomfort. Two students had already gone to the hospital.

But last night, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia approved a proposal to increase total compensation for contract workers from a minimum of $11.33 an hour to $13 by July and to $14 by July 2007, according to university officials. The proposal also affirms workers' right to organize without intimidation and offers access to benefits, such as English as a Second Language classes and university transportation shuttles.

"We were stunned," said protester Liam Stack. "This is a real victory."

Students hugged and cheered and then went to find workers to tell them they would be getting a raise. Silvia Garcia was cleaning a bathroom in the Intercultural Center on campus when a group of students burst in sometime before midnight and told her, in Spanish, "We won! We won!"

Workers were jumping up and down, clapping, smiling and thanking students while students thanked them, Mahoney said.

Garcia, a native of El Salvador who has been a cleaner at Georgetown since May, said yesterday afternoon, "We were all very, very happy."

Yesterday, administrators, students, union members and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who is a professor at Georgetown's law school, met to finalize the deal.

DeGioia said the change for the 450 or so contract janitors and food-service and security workers "is an appropriate next step for us" in ongoing efforts to ensure good working conditions.

He taught some of the protesters in classes on human rights, he said, and has repeatedly urged students to engage in social justice issues. "There is an irony there," he said, and laughed.

A few years ago, some Georgetown students began meeting contract workers. They offered makeshift English classes for some and brought breakfast at 6 a.m. Fridays for workers getting off the night shift. They talked to them about higher wages -- students initially asked for nearly $15 an hour from the university -- and encouraged them to think about unionizing.

Similar conversations are taking place across the country, said Tom Juravich, director of the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, often growing out of the anti-sweatshop movements of the past decade.

As students protested over the working conditions of overseas employees making university gear, they also began to look at workers closer to home, he said.

At Georgetown, workers stopped by late most nights during the hunger strike, Mahoney said, to check on them. He spent much of his time having vivid daydreams of eating a vegetable samosa from an M Street restaurant. He lost 10 pounds, dropping to 135 on his 5-foot-8-inch frame.

"They gave everything to solve our problems before they [graduated], by the grace of God," Garcia said. "Without them, we would have gotten nothing."

Staff writer Pamela Constable contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company