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May 12, 2007

Let's hear it for the UVM 12

By GARRET KEIZER, Op-ed printed in the Burlington Free Press

The dad in me is happy they've decided to eat. The voter in me is happy they decided to strike. The cynic in me would have been happy

That's because ever since those 12 UVM students began fasting to demand that the university's lowest-paid workers receive a livable wage, the cynic in me has had to eat some humble pie. Only a few days before the strike, he'd been overheard muttering to himself: "These college kids are all into Earth Day, but I bet there isn't one in a thousand who could tell you the meaning of Labor Day."

Try 12, Jack, 12 young women and men who happened to give more than a flying Frisbee for who does the heavy lifting on their quad; 12 students who couldn't abide the irony of acquiring a marketable skill while enjoying the services of people who seemed to lack a livable wage. Whatever the strikers might, or might not, have missed in their calculations, their convictions were refreshingly on the mark.

If you think I'm about to launch into some insufferable boomer comparison with "my own activist generation," you're in the wrong article. Or maybe I went to the wrong college. A year or so before I enrolled at my alma mater, the student body there went on strike to demand an end to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia -- and the creation of co-ed residence halls. Ah, peace and justice. How many roads must a man walk down before he sleeps in your dorm?

The UVM 12 are in a whole different league. Thank God, they aren't on a whole different planet. That's where middle-class activism tends to go these days, especially when it's hoping to get off on the cheap. Let's talk about polar bears in the Arctic or lamas in Tibet, anything but the injustice reeking under our noses -- anything that won't raise the taxes or put a crimp in the fun.

That cynic I was telling you about a few paragraphs back -- he once defined a "Vermont progressive" as someone who runs over three toothless farmhands in his rush to protest on behalf of any campesino living at least a thousand miles downwind from his favorite State Street cafe. I'm a Vermont progressive, too, as far as that goes, but I want to call these students by a better name.

And I want the UVM administration to make good on its promise to study their issue further. What the strikers demanded is exemplary for any institution that calls itself the University of Vermont: exemplary of what Vermont as a whole must do if it wants to be worthy of its constant self-congratulation; exemplary of what it means, in the best sense, to be an educated human being.

For if the university produces doctors, engineers, artists, and teachers who don't care what its lowest-paid workers are earning per hour, then its only contribution to society is that of swelling our already swollen ranks of highly credentialed fops. As things stand now, UVM seems to be turning out a better sort of grad.

To the strikers themselves, I have only two things to say. First, you're beautiful. Never in the 29 years since I earned a degree at the university have I felt as proud of my association with it as I do now.

Second, if you're going to fight for economic justice in America, you'll need to live long and stay well. Had you aborted your strike solely for reasons of health, you'd have gotten no scorn from me. Within the first hours of your fast, you had already done a finer piece of work than I and my much-chastened cynicism have accomplished in many a year.

Garret Keizer is a freelance writer in Sutton.

© Copyright 2007 Burlington Free Press