A group of undergraduate students known as the Student Worker Alliance (SWA) began a sit-in in areas of South Brookings Hall and Brookings Quadrangle April 4 in protest over wage levels for employees of contract companies that provide basic services to the University.
John E. Klein, executive vice chancellor for administration, subsequently made a presentation at the April 11 University Council meeting, with two SWA members and Student Union President David Ader present as observers. The plan Klein presented, which provided a prompt and substantial response to the SWA concerns, includes:
• Continuing a dialogue with SWA students, and committing $500,000 as of July 1, 2005, toward improving the wage/benefits packages of contract service employees in ways that will also enhance the University.
• Convening a meeting of University service contractors to discuss what improvements can be made, either individually or collaboratively, with special attention to health-care issues.
• Establishing a group to reexamine priorities in order to identify resources to assist lower-paid contract service employees.
Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, who had met with the SWA students on several occasions since April 4 when they began the sit-in, presented the plan in a campus-wide April 11 e-mail.
“I know that all in the community care about those who face financial hardships,” Wrighton wrote. “We provide generous support on campus in many ways, including financial aid for needy students and special responses when financial changes have occurred in the families of our students.
“We have also, as a community, assisted the Greater St. Louis community through our Supplier Diversity Initiative and through our volunteer contributions to the United Way. I believe it is important to take seriously the concerns raised by our students and others regarding workers at Washington University.”
Wrighton later added, “We have heard the students’ concerns, and we care about the same issues related to contract workers at Washington University.
“We believe the University is a premier employer and that all who work here should be rewarded and appreciated. But we also know that even the best can improve.”
The SWA students did not accept the plan.
Later that day, the students occupying South Brookings Hall were notified in writing that they were in violation of the University’s Judicial Code, which prohibits “interfering with the rights of other members of the University community and visitors to the University to engage in educational, recreational, residential, administrative, professional, business, and ceremonial activities or other functions.”
The Judicial Code, originally written by faculty, students and administrators and reaffirmed as recently as spring this year, is reviewed annually with all students and serves as the University’s policies and procedures regarding student conduct.
References to the code had been shared with the sit-in students on at least two prior occasions.
“The University cannot permit actions that interfere with the conduct of its official business,” Wrighton wrote in an April 12 campus-wide e-mail. “The disruption in South Brookings Hall was allowed during the time when the University was formulating a plan, with the understanding that such disruption would need to be discontinued when the University’s plan was presented.”
Late on April 11, the SWA notified the University administration that some SWA members intended to go on a hunger strike.
“This latest development concerns me deeply because of the very serious health implications involved,” Wrighton wrote in his April 12 e-mail to the University community. “In my meetings with them, I have repeatedly attempted to discourage them from taking this drastic and dangerous approach.”
Wrighton wrote that he asked James E. McLeod, vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, and Alan I. Glass, M.D., director of the Student Health and Counseling Center, “to meet with the students threatening a hunger strike, both as a group and individually, to explain the potentially serious health consequences of their actions and to attempt to persuade them to choose another less injurious form of protest.”
That meeting took place April 12.
“I take my responsibilities for the well-being of our community seriously and believe that we cannot allow our students to participate in potentially life-threatening activities on our campus,” Wrighton wrote.
At Record presstime (5 p.m. April 13), the sit-in students were still occupying South Brookings Hall and Brookings Quadrangle.
Updates on this issue will be posted at news-info.wustl.edu/news/page/normal/5068.html. Wrighton’s campus-wide e-mails are available at chancellor.wustl.edu.
In spring 2004, Wrighton named a task force of students, faculty and administrators to make recommendations regarding principles and guidelines for basic services and contracts.
The task force’s report resulted in revised principles and guidelines for service contracts with outside companies that provide basic services. Improvements made as a result of the task force recommendations include:
• All requests for proposals require that outside contractors demonstrate that their wages are truly “competitive” in the St. Louis region.
• The University conducts its own regular, independent assessment of the “competitive” issues relating to contractors and their employees.
• The University makes initial contract awards as well as contract renewals based on a range of issues related to how a contractor treats its employees, including providing good grievance procedures and a safe and respectful working environment.