By Dan DiMaggio, Veteran of the Harvard Living Wage Campaign, Graduate Student Employee, Tufts University

March and April saw a wave of actions by student-labor coalitions and workers at several universities demanding living wages and the right to organize unions.

In the most successful action, 22 students at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. went on a hunger strike on March 15, demanding that the university pay its workers a living wage of $15/hour. They had been campaigning for three years against wages as low as $6.60/hour – so low that one woman’s son was forced to drop out of high school and join her as a janitor at Georgetown in order to put food on the table!

Owing to their courageous 9-day hunger strike, which drew the support of many workers, students, and the local community, Georgetown agreed to pay its workers a living wage of $14 an hour (indexed to inflation). This is the highest living wage policy at a university and provides a model for campaigns at other schools.

Just a week later, 15 students at Washington University in St. Louis began a sit-in demanding an end to poverty wages there. The 19-day sit-in led to wage increases and a commitment to respect workers’ right to organize a union, although the campaign fell short of winning a living wage.

And on April 18, graduate students at Yale and Columbia went on a week-long strike demanding the right to form a union, in the first multi-campus strike in Ivy League history.

Last summer the NLRB deprived graduate student employees of the legal right to unionize, declaring that they are students and not workers, despite the growing reliance of universities on the labor of graduate student employees, many of whom make as little as $10,000/year. While the strike ended without resolving any of the issues, it helped raise the profile of graduate student unions and paved the way for more powerful actions in the future.

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