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News | UVM students end hunger strike, make deal with administration

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted April 27, 2007

BURLINGTON — More than a dozen University of Vermont students ended a five-day hunger strike today after Pres. Dan Fogel agreed to re-examine how some employees are paid.

A dozen UVM students who are part of the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) went on a hunger strike Monday in an effort to get the school to boost wages for about 200 employees on campus.

A noontime rally today drew more than 100 students, workers, faculty, and community members to the steps of the school’s main administrative building.

At 2:30, the students met with Fogel for about 90 minutes and emerged with an ended strike, and a commitment from Fogel to reconsider how it pays some of its employees.

“In general, we felt a sense of disappointment that our larger goals weren’t met, but in place of that we have made steps with an administration led by Fogel that has been very much opposed to student protest despite what it says publicly,” said Andy Black, a sophomore from Southboro, MA.

One of the agreements, which the students say they have on tape in a verbal promise, is for UVM to reinstate its basic needs task force to examine what it pays employees, and if it matches up with the livable wage standards established for the region. That task force will become a permanent fixture, said Black, and not be dissolved once its work is done.

In a statement, Fogel said the university remains committed to being a responsible employer, and will do right by its employees.

“I sincerely believe that UVM is a responsible, exemplary employer, open to positive change and improvement. Our students continue to play a vital role in bringing basic needs issues to fuller awareness and in highlighting their importance to our university. We are committed to continuing the progress we have made and to discussing these and other important issues going forward,” Fogel said. “I respect and value the dedication and focus provided by the Student Labor Action Project and their allies on these important issues, and I am very pleased that our students have chosen to end the hunger strike.”

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Earlier in the day, members of the group believed they might be on strike for much longer than the five days. And, the noontime rally was a time for others to come and buoy the students.

Speaker after speaker praised the students for putting themselves on the line, and urged the administration of Fogel to lift the wages of the university’s lowest-paid employees.

Union faculty member Nancy Welch pointed out that under Fogel’s tenure the number of administrators earning six-figure salaries has increased from 109 to 236, and there are now 15 administrators earning more than $200,000. There were three people who earned such salaries when Fogel took office. Fogel earns more than $300,000.

“What Pres. Fogel has been doing is raising the ceiling for top administrators, when what he should be doing is raising the floor for everybody,” Welch said to cheers.

Welch’s phrase inspired one student to lead the crowd in a rousing chant of, “Raise the floor.”

Many of the students addressed the crowd, some of them explaining that they were on a hunger strike, in part, based on their personal history.

One student spoke of her mother who was a low-paid employee at the University of Colorado and who worked a second job as a waitress to put food on the table. She said her mother did take advantage of some of the perks offered to her, such as tuition reimbursement, but it took her 17 years to get a college degree.

One employee who spoke, Carmyn Stanko, who is also a union steward, reminded the crowd that the students’ hunger strike was emblematic.

“There are many employees who are on a permanent hunger strike because they do not earn a livable wage,” she told the crowd.

Stanko told the Guardian that employees are grateful for the students’ efforts, and most are thanking them in one-on-one conversations, or dropping by juice and water. Given their work schedules, or need to work another job, many employees were not able to offer additional solidarity.

However, one employees came to show her support. Shouyan Gardiner, who has worked as an electrician at UVM for 10 years, said she is tired of not receiving adequate pay for her work.

Recently, a new electrician was hired into her department at a much higher wage than she earns. She was told that the new electrician was paid more due to “market demand.”

“Market demand? But, I’m part of the market and I’ve been with the university for 10 years,” she said. “I think what the students are doing here is wonderful, but I worry about their health. It’s so hard [for the workers] because so many people work two jobs to support their families and they can’t make it out or feel like they can help.”

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Before the rally, several of the hunger strikers said they were holding up, but were beginning to feel the effects of five days of eating no food.

“My energy level goes up and down,” said Alessandro Ascherio, 19, a first-year student from Boston, MA.

Still, he was not willing to give up.

“The response from the administration so far has been very inadequate,” said Ascherio, an environmental studies major. “They sent out an e-mail saying they were concerned for our safety, and that’s all well and good, but it said nothing about the student action or why we’re doing this. We’re putting our safety in jeopardy because we care about this issue.”

The group rotates who stays in a tent in front of the Waterman building, during the day and night. The students try not to miss classes, and use the nearby computer lab to work on final papers and projects.

Sophomore Katherine Nopper, 19, of Putney, said the students planned the strike weeks in advance, and did their homework to make sure their bodies could withstand the lack of food, and that they knew what the effects would be. They are also being checked regularly by a school doctor.

“We didn’t take this lightly,” said Nopper.

Black said students broke their fast by sharing some local bread together, and plan on taking it easy in the next few days with the types of food they eat.

Stanko said the students raised awareness about the plight of some employees at the school, and she hopes the administration truly listens.

In the last contract, the university did kick in extra money toward retirement and health care coverage, which Stanko acknowledges did help to lift overall pay packages for employees. The union’s current contract expires July 1, 2008.

“But, it’s not putting food on peoples’ tables,” she said.

A former student, Brady Fletcher, who was a member of SLAP, admired the hunger strikers for raising the stakes. SLAP has been working for several years to raise wages and improve working conditions for employees at UVM.

“I think when they did tent city again this year that the administration just shrugged it off as a little annual festival for SLAP,” said Fletcher. “That kind of condescending attitude offended people. So, the hunger strike really precipitated from the place of, ‘What are we going to do now?’”

Fletcher said the hunger strike was really a last ditch effort to show that students were serious and weren’t willing to hear the same answers from administrators.

In recent years, student hunger strikes have become a common tool used by campus activists to shed light on a particular topic, but increasingly are used to force an administration’s hand on the issue of livable wages.

Late last year, Purdue students staged a 26-day hunger strike that ended on Dec. 14 without that school’s administration budging on its policies toward providing livable wages. However, student leaders were emboldened to take up the issue, and others pledged to wage a more direct campaign focused on the school’s trustees.

On Sunday, students at Stanford University ended a nine-day hunger strike when the school’s president agreed to revisit its livable wage policy as it pertains to contract workers and others not covered by a union contract.

In 2005, similar hunger strikes were held at Washington University in St. Louis, and Georgetown University in Washington. In both cases, administrators agreed to raise wages for their employees.