Hopkins sit-in

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Wed Mar 1 07:00:23 PST 2000

Chronicle of Higher Education - web daily - March 1, 2000

Johns Hopkins Students Stage a Sit-In to Demand Higher Pay for Campus Workers


Students at the Johns Hopkins University started a sit-in Monday in an administration building to call for higher wages to be paid to support-staff members at the institution.

About 20 members of the Student-Labor Action Committee entered the building Monday around noon, and some fastened themselves together at the neck using U-shaped bicycle locks in the building's atrium and awaited arrest. University officials allowed the protesters to stay and said they had no plans to stop the sit-in.

The protesters, who have held candlelight vigils and courted the press with a stream of releases, have no plans to leave.

"We're staying here until the university adopts a true living wage for its employees," said Christopher Powers, a graduate student in German. Mr. Powers, who spoke from a pay telephone in the building, was occasionally drowned out by the loud chants of his fellow protesters.

The protesters charge that wages for direct and contract employees at the university and its health system are below the amount set for city workers by Baltimore's "living wage" ordinance, now $7.90 per hour. The city sets the "living wage" based on the amount one would have to earn -- working a full year without vacations -- to raise a family of four just above the poverty level. Last year, bowing in part to pressure from the student group, the university pledged to raise its minimum wages to at least $7.75 per hour by 2002.

That's not good enough, say the protesters, who are demanding that Hopkins match the increasing amount set by the city. In July, Baltimore's living wage will be $8.03 per hour.

"The point is, by 2002 the living wage could be around $9 an hour," Mr. Powers said. "The living wage changes yearly and Hopkins' plan does not reflect that. Hopkins is the most powerful institution in Baltimore, and the largest nongovernment employer in Maryland. We believe that Hopkins has a responsibility to the city of Baltimore."

Dennis R. O'Shea, a spokesman for Hopkins, said that the university was taking the protesters' concerns "very seriously" and that the university had been a "leader" in considering the welfare of its employees. "The minimum wage is $5.15 an hour," he said. "We're obviously well above that for every employee." He said the lowest-paid employees -- who work for contractors hired by the health system -- make $6 an hour; their pay will rise to $6.50 in July.

Mr. O'Shea raised questions about the definition of a "living wage" as it applied to Hopkins employees. "As I understand the living-wage concept, it's what you have to make to support a family of four above the poverty threshold," he said. "Of course, that assumes that each employee is supporting a family of four, which I think is true in some cases, but it's probably not true in every case for every employee. What I'm saying is that the concept that there is a living wage that applies equally for all employees is kind of an arbitrary one."

He added that the university had budget concerns of its own: "I don't have to tell you that the financial situation for academic medical centers is a difficult one today, and a lot of places have run up a lot of losses and have had to lay off employees. Hopkins has avoided that through good management. Working with the budget, this is as fast as we can get to where we want to be, and that's $7.75."

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