Washington University students sit-in for living wage, United States, 2005


Increase wages and benefits for campus workers

Time period

1 April, 2005 to 22 April, 2005


United States

Location City/State/Province

St. Louis, Missouri

Location Description

Washington University of St. Louis campus
Jump to case narrative

Methods in 1st segment

Methods in 2nd segment

  • from professors supporting SWA campaign

Methods in 6th segment

  • By community members outside the building being occupied

Segment Length

3 days


Student-Worker Alliance at Washington University


Service workers

External allies


Involvement of social elites

Celebrities including politician John Edwards, actor Danny Glover


Washington University administration (Chancellor Mark Wrighton)

Nonviolent responses of opponent


Campaigner violence

Not known

Repressive Violence

Not known


Economic Justice



Group characterization


Groups in 2nd Segment

service workers

Groups in 6th Segment


Segment Length

3 days

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

4 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


1 out of 3 points

Total points

6 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

Campaigner won an increase in wages and benefits for contract workers, but no living wage guarantee

Database Narrative

Students at Washington University of St. Louis formed the Student Worker’s Alliance (SWA) in November 2003 after 36 Nicaraguan campus workers were fired and deported to Nicaragua. SWA aimed to “begin a living wage campaign” for all workers at the university.

The City of St. Louis defined a living wage as between $10 and $12 dollars an hour, depending on benefits. At the time of the protest, Washington University custodians were paid $8 per hour and groundskeepers $9.49. There are no merit raises or bonuses, except for a 3% raise every year to account for inflation. The employees also had to pay $350 for parking spots. Additionally, most of the workers were subcontracted and not allowed to unionize.

In November 2003, SWA presented the Code of Conduct to Chancellor Mark Wrighton and pressured him to adopt the proposal. In response, Wrighton created a task force in 2004 to examine the labor conditions and recommend action. According the protestors, the task force unanimously recommended a living wage policy to the Chancellor in April 2004. The Chancellor then rejected the living wage policy shortly before the October presidential elections and did not grant an opportunity to present the case to the Board of Trustees.

Following a successful living wage campaign involving hunger strikes at Georgetown University in March 2005, SWA held a rally on April 1 in front of Brookings Hall. The College Libertarians held an counter-demonstration.

On Monday, 3 April, about a dozen members of SWA began a sit-in at the admissions office in Brookings Hall. They targeted the admissions office during the “April Welcome” period during which prospective students would visit. In addition, SWA held daily rallies outside the window of the admissions office.

On 7 April, thirty professors signed a document supporting SWA and urging the administration to adopt a living wage policy. Eventually the petition was signed by 175 professors. After a meeting on 11 April between the protesters and university administrators, Wrighton sent a campus-wide email in which he committed $500,000 to “improving the wage/benefits packages of contract service employees” and agreed to discuss with contractors.

SWA thought the plan was inadequate and announced that evening that fourteen members would begin a hunger strike in the admissions office. The university warned that this would break the university’s judicial code and threatened the protestors with punishment, up to expulsion if they did not leave the admissions office by 11:30 pm. They did not leave, and no action was taken by the administration. Tuesday afternoon, Wrighton sent out another email urging SWA protestors to stop the hunger strike due to dangerous health consequences.

A survey by Student Life, a campus newspaper, revealed that 70% of the student body at Washington University supported higher wages for workers, but not necessarily SWA’s tactics. On 19 April, nine students held an anti-SWA lunch-in on the quad. On 20 April, the Student Senate passed a resolution urging SWA to stop their protest. Celebrities such as politician John Edwards and actor Danny Glover called and voiced their support for the protests. Church congregations in St. Louis kept 24-hour vigils outside Brookings in the final days of the sit-in. The university’s service employees were not allowed to officially ally with SWA, but many secretly passed notes and supplies to the protestors.

SWA ended their protest on Friday, 22 April, after sitting-in for 19 days. Vice Chancellor James McLeod gave the group a two-page agreement. The agreement included committing $1 million in the next two years towards increasing salary and benefits for contract employees, membership of the university with the Worker Rights Consortium, and the formation of a committee of students and administrators to review selection and renewal of service contractors. Finally, the agreement allowed workers to form unions. However, there was no amnesty for the student protestors, although scholarships were protected and no suspensions were made.

One year after the protest ended, the university had raised the wage floor from $6.50 to $8.20 an hour. The university provided health services to employees at La Clinica, a bilingual free clinic in south St. Louis. The University also issued Metrolink passes to all employees. However, a complete living wage standard had still not been attained.


The Washington University students were influenced by the successful Georgetown student hunger strike for living wage in the previous month. (1)


"Washington University - St. Louis." Student Worker Solidarity Resource Center. Living Wage Action Coalition, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2013. <http://www.livingwageaction.org/campaigns_washu.htm>.

Lederman, Doug. "Living Wages and Hunger Strikes." Inside Higher Ed. N.p., 13 Apr. 2005. Web. 24 Feb. 2013. <http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2005/04/13/washu>.

Jobs with Justice. "Students, Workers Win Big at Washington University." Truthout. N.p., 22 Apr. 2005. Web. 24 Feb. 2013. <http://archive.truthout.org/article/students-workers-win-big-washington-university>.

righton, Mark S. "Final Agreement Letter to Student Worker Alliance." Letter to Student Worker Alliance. 22 Apr. 2005. Living Wage Action Coalition. Web. 24 Feb. 2013. <http://www.livingwageaction.org/docs/washuAgreement.doc>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Meiri Anto 04/02/2013