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."
John Schroder, a philosophy professor, visited the office after receiving an e-mail that four of his students would be missing class because of the sit-in.
Two campus hunger strikes have occurred in the past 18 months in the region -- at the University of Virginia and Georgetown University -- to win wage increases and better working conditions for campus employees. The St. Mary's students said they were mindful of lessons from those actions.
"We have been in contact with students in other schools that have had success with similar campaigns," said junior Liz Lawrence, 20. "This cause is not a cause that is exclusive to St. Mary's. You see it at Harvard, you see it at Miami."
The union representing the campus workers -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3980 -- reached a tentative deal Thursday night with the college administration guaranteeing an almost $3,000 increase in the base pay for current employees to $23,000 a year, as well as additional annual increases, merit increases and changes in leave policy and working conditions.
The union signed its first contract with the college in 2003, two years after Maryland passed a law making it legal for campus employees at state colleges and universities to engage in collective bargaining.
On Friday afternoon, administrators had an open forum at which anyone could comment on campus labor issues. At that session, students repeated their calls for the college to offer adequate wages but voiced some indecision about their earlier demands for student wage hikes. Union members at the forum said they appreciated the students' efforts to highlight the pay issues.
"The students are doing a fantastic job," said Brenda Carter, who has worked as a housekeeper on the campus for 12 years.
"We've been in negotiations since June, and no substantive gains were made until yesterday," said Reginald John, a public safety officer and union steward. "Clearly, it wouldn't have happened without the students."
Near the end of Friday's forum, O'Brien took the floor and announced that the Board of Trustees would be willing to study the subject of living wages for campus employees in October.
That was a step forward but apparently fell short of what the students want before they will leave O'Brien's office.
"We're not asking for our demands to be met right now, but we are asking for a written commitment that steps will be taken to fulfill them," said senior Heather Muszynski, who estimated that the protest could last through the early part of this week.