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Students Demanding Better Wages Continue Sit-In at St. Mary's College

Students occupy the office of St. Mary's College President Jane Margaret O'Brien. They seek $32,000 a year for college workers and $10 an hour minimum for student employees.
Students occupy the office of St. Mary's College President Jane Margaret O'Brien. They seek $32,000 a year for college workers and $10 an hour minimum for student employees. (By Michael Tunison -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Tunison
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2006

More than a dozen students occupied the president's office at St. Mary's College of Maryland for most of last week to protest pay and benefits issues affecting campus and student workers.

Late Tuesday morning, several students met with college President Jane Margaret O'Brien in her office. During that meeting, the students told O'Brien that she had not responded adequately to their views and demands, and they informed her that they would not leave the office until she made a commitment to take action on the compensation issues relating to campus and student employees. As of Friday evening, they remained in the office.

The students are demanding that the college pay all workers a living wage, which they defined as $32,000 annually, based on cost-of-living figures for a household of three or four living in a two-bedroom apartment in St. Mary's County and spending less than 30 percent of their income on shelter and utilities. The protesters are calling for a $10-an-hour minimum wage for student workers and seek a student-elected, rather than administration-appointed, student member of the college's Board of Trustees.

"We plan to stay indefinitely until justice has been achieved," senior Paul Blundell, 22, said Wednesday as he and other students in O'Brien's office discussed plans for continuing the protest. "They've shown reluctance to engage with us. They refuse to give any positive commitment."

The protest interrupted normal activities in Calvert Hall, the college's main administration building.

"There are 10 administrative offices that have been disrupted," O'Brien said. "My administrative assistant felt very crowded in the process. The students, to their credit, have been very respectful of the property within the office."

The sit-in protest began days after a Sept. 15 rally by campus employees in front of the campus center, which concluded with a march to the administrative building. Students said they were upset to learn about what campus support employees termed their "poverty wages."

Students met Sunday and Monday in a private residence and agreed on their demands and plan of action. The meeting Tuesday with O'Brien and Tom Botzman, the college's vice president of business and finance, lasted four hours with little progress.

"Their objective certainly was to sit in on my office, and it took them a day to figure out and articulate what they wanted from there," O'Brien said. "Once we got into discussion, the living wage issue really came to the fore, to the point that I don't think we focus much on the student issues."

Botzman said: "In the broadest sense, they are asking that the college continue to think of itself as a progressive moral institution. We are trying to educate them while at the same time listening to and considering their concerns."

On Wednesday, as the sit-in continued, students in O'Brien's office used laptops, writing and printing out fact sheets and position papers. A core of 13 committed themselves to staying through the protest, with dozens of others supplying provisions and assistance when needed.

"Most of our professors have been supportive of this action," said senior Caitlin Matanle, 21. "They say that they feel this is a very important issue on this campus."

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