Progressive campus forces stepped up efforts last week to improve workers’ rights on campus. Attempting to persuade University administrators to accede to their demands – such as instituting a living wage, allying with the Worker Rights Consortium and improving access to healthcare – 11 students were arrested by Metropolitan Police while assembling a tent city in the Marvin Center lobby. While the protesters have raised some legitimate points, the tactics they employed make it more difficult to affect actual change in University policy.
In theory, the demands students put forth seem both virtuous and – in some cases – feasible. Instituting a living wage would drastically improve the quality of life for University employees. Given the cost of living in Washington, D.C., many University employees are barely able to subsist on their University income. The WRC helps ensure Universities are not giving apparel contracts to companies using sweatshop labor abroad. Improving access to healthcare would afford families the ability to see a doctor regularly and not just wait for emergency situations to present themselves. While each of these demands would improve the situation of workers, these students have not done an adequate job explaining the potential impact on students.
Implementing these initiatives would come at great cost to the University and, as a result, students as well. Requiring GW to pay a living wage – which while numbers vary, is around $13 per hour – would put a significant strain on the University budget. Since University revenues are tuition based, there is no doubt this expense would cause a substantial rise in an already high tuition figure. The WRC could cost the University up to $50,000 a year which – given recent budget cuts – could be tight for the University. The investment could be worth it if the University’s own group is failing to prevent further violations.
In order to improve the University’s treatment of its workers, protesters need to revise their tactics. Workers rights is a cause students can rally around. However the limited scope of the protests permits both the administration and other students to write off those protesting as a fringe of the campus population. Progressive forces on campus should tailor programming to the rest of the student body informing them about the importance of improving the condition of GW’s workers. While the University can easily write off a small group, they would have serious trouble ignoring several hundred or even a thousand students protesting in the Marvin Center.
The protesters could also improve their standing in administrative eyes by developing a comprehensive proposal, outlining the additional costs of implementing its demands. If shown a pragmatic proposal, administrators might be more willing to explore the possibility of meeting with protesters and exploring the feasibility of changing its policies.
Some blame should be directed toward the University administration as well. For most University infractions, students are written up through UPD and charged and tried through SJS. In this situation, after being told to leave by UPD, students were ultimately arrested by Metropolitan Police and will be facing proceedings in District court. Given that the protests were non-violent, there appears little reason for UPD to have deferred to MPD. If the University does not – in most cases – direct drug possession and alcohol offenses to the city, it is unacceptable under these circumstances to have brought MPD to arrest the students. UPD could have easily detained the students and charged them with a violation of the Student Code of Conduct through SJS. Given this faux pas, the University should go to court, as Senior Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services Robert Chernak mentioned, and push the court to either drop the charges against the students, or lessen the charges. President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg also needs to make himself more available to students to hear their concerns. Doing so would alleviate the need for protesters to take action like they did last week.
The protesters have raised some valid concerns about the need to improve workers rights at GW. However, in order to make sure some of these changes are ultimately implemented, progressive forces on campus must change its tactics to reach as many students as possible.