In an unusually quiet fall semester, student protests visibly declined despite high-profile national events and University labor struggles.
GW’s Progressive Student Union, a group that fights for human rights and fair trade, has been an active presence on campus in recent years, protesting University policy on issues such as adjunct professor unionization and working conditions in the J Street food court. But so far this year, the organization has not staged any attention-grabbing activities, PSU members said.
Sophomore Cheryl Deutsch, a two-year member of the student group, said last semester’s efforts in social activism included handing out flyers on campus and meeting with University officials and GW employees about labor-oriented issues. Such low-key tactics stand in stark contrast to the PSU’s loud and often controversial activities of the past two semesters.
“We had a very busy year last year, and (now) we’re trying to gauge the effects, analyze our actions and plan for the future,” Deutsch said.
Last year, the PSU held two major demonstrations, the first of which came in November after Aramark, the University’s food service provider, laid off more than 10 employees only months after hiring them. The second protest, in March, called for higher wages and affordable health care for employees. It resulted in the arrests of nine GW students who planned to occupy the Marvin Center’s Great Hall in camping tents. Demonstrators also placed a giant inflatable rat outside Rice Hall.
The arrests also attracted the attention of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who came to campus to praise the efforts of the PSU and call for better treatment of workers all across the country.
But part-time professors’ unionization efforts and other recent labor issues have not attracted the attention of prominent politicians nor elicited any PSU demonstrations similar to those staged last year.
Some members of the student group said the March protest caused GW’s administration to change its policies to be more in line with the PSU’s vision. University officials pushed for better working conditions in J Street before signing a 10-year contract with W also recently negotiated an improved health care plan for all employees earning under $30,000 a year, meeting one of the PSU’s demands from the Marvin Center protest, she added.
“The administration often does things after we bring issues to their attention,” said Allie Robbins, who was an active organizer before graduating last May. “The new health care plan is a great example.”
Some PSU members also attributed the decline in last semester’s activity to the loss of key group members such as Robbins, who was one of the nine GW students who were arrested.
“Organizations like (the PSU) wax and wane. It’s not uncommon because they tend to be personality related,” University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said. “People come and people go and times change.”
Trachtenberg added that GW tends to be a “very political campus,” but recent national developments may have contributed to the loss of a spirit of activism in colleges across the country.
“I think things are quieter on university campuses in general,” he said. “With post-9/11 and the country at war, there tends to be a different world view these days than if (the nation) was able to focus more on its own agenda.”
When the International Monetary Fund and World Bank held their biannual summit meetings in October, Metropolitan Police and University officials closed streets due to an elevated orange terror alert in effect for the building, which is located a few blocks from campus. While past meetings have seen upwards of 5,000 demonstrators, this fall’s numbers fell into the low hundreds, partly because of the increased security presence.
The streets of D.C. were also virtually devoid of discord after President Bush defeated Democratic challenger John Kerry by a close margin.
Still, 2005 may prove to be a more boisterous year in the nation’s capital. Demonstrators from around the country are planning to flood the streets of D.C. both before and after the president’s Jan. 20 inauguration to protest the Bush administration and occupation of Iraq.
PSU members said they have no plans to protest Bush’s re-election or his upcoming inauguration, however.