Protesters want Washington University to raise wages and provide childcare for workers.
Wearing Christmas hats, Washington University campus workers and student activists marched around campus Friday, singing altered Christmas carols to urge administrators to raise university workers' wages and offer childcare.
Organized by the Washington University Graduate Workers Union (WUGWU) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the "All I Want for Christmas is $15" demonstration was staged in front of Knight Hall, the planned location for the university’s Board of Trustees meeting on December 7.
The protesters’ set list included a version of “Jingle Bells” that replaced the traditional lyrics with “Jingle bells/ fight like hell/ for a living wage. I got bills/ that I can’t fill/ till the next time I get paid.”
Another chant took a shot at the university's chancellor Mark Wrighton, replacing the lyrics of “Oh Christmas Tree” with “A living wage, a living wage, is all we need for Christmas/ Wash U.’s wages make me flinch/ Wrighton, don’t be a Grinch!”
The discourse wasn't all one-side choral singing. Wash U. provost Holden Thorp eventually approached the crowd, listening as various protesters urged him to use his position to help persuade the board members to fulfill their wishes.
“We need some champions on the inside,” the Rev. Darryl Gray told Thorp. “We will disrupt. We don’t want to do that.”
Rev. Darryl Gray, on left, speaks to Wash U. Provost Holden Thorp about the protest's aims.
In his response to the crowd, Thorp did not promise any changes, instead telling them that the board meeting they were there to protest had been relocated to a different spot on campus. However, protesters such as Grace Ward, a PhD student in the department of anthropology and member of WUGWU, did not believe him.
"They were there," Ward said. "They just weren't going to speak with us."
Following through on Gray’s promise to disrupt, the crowd of protesters funneled through a side door of Knight Hall while continuing to sing their carols through the halls. The disruption was met by members of campus security, who directed the protests out of the building.
The protest continued as the group chanted outside the building for a few more minutes before marching to different parts of the campus.
“We had to be more flexible,” Ward remarked after the protest. "We were probably looking at a nice piece of administrative scrambling in order to keep the board members away from having to hear our message.”
In a statement, university spokeswoman Susan McGinn didn't weigh in on the meeting's relocation or the substance of the protesters' demands.
"As always, we welcome open exchange of ideas and encourage our students and other members of our community to share their perspectives. We remain committed to working together to resolve issues,” McGinn wrote in an email to Riverfront Times
Friday's protest was the latest action in a WUGWU campaign started earlier this year, setting as its main goals a $15 per hour wage for all workers and free childcare provided on campus. Members of the organization have been protesting in front of administrators' offices and homes and at events they know administrators will be attending.
“This [protest] was the culmination where we knew that the greatest seat of power would be gathered on campus,” Ward noted. “We knew we had to show up in numbers.”
According to Ward, campus workers make only $8 to $9 per hour. Employees at campus-based businesses such as Starbucks and Subway receive minimum wages set by those corporations. Undergraduate student workers, employed in places such as the recreation center or library, are paid between $9 and $9.25 per hour.
"This is not just pocket change for them,” Ward said. “This is money that they use in order to fund their ability to be here.”
Wash U.'s housekeepers, who are organized with SEIU Local 1, have a minimum wage of $12 an hour. According to Ward, their salary is not enough to cover their financial needs.
“Different departments will raise collections to help employees such as the housekeepers to give them for the holidays,” Ward says. “Our argument is to instead have this institution pay people a living wage instead of depending on that fallback during the holidays.
Along with a wage increase, protesters called for free childcare to be implemented at the university. Crystal Wells, a mother of twin boys and a housekeeper who has worked the university for more than seventeen years, says that much of her salary goes towards childcare.
“I have two children and they have to be watched,” Wells says. "I have to pay for someone to watch my children and that takes up what I make, basically."
Protesters say the $15/hour wage is not an arbitrary figure, but a reasonable target for a living wage. In a report
issued earlier this year by the university's own Clark-Fox Policy Institute, researchers used $15 as minimum that would support a married family with two children. The report notes that, under Missouri's current minimum wage of $7.85/hour, a family with two full-time minimum wage working parents and two young children will spend nearly half their yearly salary on child care. The report's recommendations include increasing the minimum wage and expanding subsidies to child care.
In November, Missouri voters approved a ballot measure
that will gradually increase the state's minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2023.
While Ward said she found last week's protest to be the “culmination” of this semester’s protests, she and the other members of WUGWU and SEIU Local 1 added that they're not planning on ceasing their movement anytime soon.
"This campaign is continuing and will continue to increase in power,” Ward promised.