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December 5, 2006

UVM students stage hunger strike

By TIM JOHNSON, The Burlington Free Press

The livable wage campaign at the University of Vermont has evolved from a tent city to a hunger strike.

Twelve UVM students began a hunger strike at 10 a.m. Monday, saying they would consume only water and juice until the university administration meets their demand to raise wages for UVM's lowest paid workers. The activists, some of whom wore sashes reading "hunger striker," inaugurated the latest phase of their campaign near the front of the Waterman Building, which houses offices of UVM's administrative leaders. Hand-painted signs were draped between pillars, and a tent had been pitched just north of the entrance.

Sam Maron, one of the coordinators of the Student Labor Action Project, the organization spearheading the campaign, said the students were seeking permission from the administration to continue the demonstration at that site.

UVM President Dan Fogel, in a statement issued Monday, expressed deep respect for the "passion and activism of our students, and their rights of free expression and peaceful dissent." He also expressed a "strong concern for safety and wellbeing" of the students, asked them to "rethink" the hunger-strike approach, and defended the university's compensation package for lower-paid workers.

This spring and last, students put up tent cities on UVM's campus to promote the campaign. This year's version, earlier this month, was in front of the Royall Tyler Theatre, across the green from Waterman.

After last spring's demonstration, Fogel asked a task force comprising students, faculty and staff to study UVM's compensation policies and make recommendations. The group's report, released in October, found that as of May 2006, 256 UVM workers received less than the $12.28-per-hour wage deemed "livable" for a single person in urban Vermont with paid health benefits.

The task force defined the livable wage as the amount necessary to meet basic needs -- housing, food, transportation and so on -- as calculated by the legislature's Joint Fiscal Office, which calculates a "basic needs budgets" every two years. The most recent livable wage, published in January, was $13.62 an hour. The lowest starting wage at UVM, under a three-year contract for service workers ratified last fall, is $10.60 an hour.

In January, Fogel issued a statement, "Parameters for Compensation at the University of Vermont," which stated that "equity, including attention to basic needs," should be one of the factors used to determine compensation.

As for the hunger strike, Fogel said Monday: "This action might be more understandable if UVM were not one of Vermont's most responsible employers. Our research indicates that we are paying very favorable 'floor' wages as compared to other public universities, and we offer excellent benefits as well."

He cited "an excellent health benefit plan with a progressive compensation-based formula, for which lowest-paid workers pay 3 percent of the health care premium"; UVM's contribution to individual retirement accounts; and free dental insurance.

How long the students will be allowed to remain at the site is unclear. As for the hunger strike's duration, Maron said: "We have no plan to stop till we win -- or get some real promise from the administration."

He added: "Gandhi only struck for 21 days at a time."

© Copyright 2007 The Burlington Free Press