Hopkins protesters encamp for living wage; Demonstrators urge minimum hourly rate of $7.90 at institution


It's a strange standoff.

Ten days ago, Johns Hopkins University students and faculty stormed the lobby of the school's Homewood administration building, chained themselves together and announced they wouldn't move until the university adopted a "living wage" policy for its lowest-paid employees.

The chains are gone, but the sit-in continues, conducted 24 hours a day by the Student Labor Action Committee, a group composed mostly of students and faculty.

Hopkins officials lock the doors of Garland Hall at the close of business each day -- isolating the protesters until dawn -- and allow them to use the hall's bathrooms and a pay phone.

Security guards, keeping watch, have befriended the protesters, whose signs are everywhere on the Garland walls among the portraits of Johns Hopkins' presidents past.

By day, Hopkins officials and secretaries conduct business as usual -- except that campus tours for prospective students no longer leave from Garland.

"We're prepared to stay as long as it takes," said Julie Eisenhardt, 21, a graduate student who said she has occupied the Garland lobby for all but five hours of the sit-in. "Every morning and every night, the decision-makers have to walk by us. Sure, it's inconvenient, but I'm running on commitment."

The demonstrators want Hopkins to pay all direct and contract employees a "living wage" of $7.90 an hour and to tie the wage to the cost of living, as required by ordinance for Baltimore City employees. The federal minimum wage, which President Clinton wants to raise, is $5.15 an hour.

A year ago, Hopkins set $7.75 an hour as a "target" wage by 2002, and spokesman Dennis O'Shea said the university is ahead of schedule on the commitment. But Hopkins has refused to consider a cost-of-living feature.

"It's a moving target established by someone else," said O'Shea. "They're asking us to give up control over our own budget and to commit to an unpredictable future number. That's very dangerous, particularly in the unpredictable health-care business."

Demonstrator William Scott, a graduate student who teaches comparative literature at the university, said Hopkins "is being deceitful. It's a lot of talk with very little substance."

Also at issue are wages paid by the Up-To-Date Laundry, which receives up to 40 percent of its business from Hopkins' East Baltimore medical institutions. The protesters want Hopkins to use its influence to improve the laundry's employment practices.

"That's a matter for collective bargaining between the laundry and its employees," O'Shea said.

Meanwhile, the mood in the lobby swings up and down.

The pay phone rings; it's a supporter from California who's read about the protest on the Internet. Baltimore labor and civil rights leaders drop by. So do Chester Wickwire, the retired Hopkins chaplain sometimes called the "conscience of the university," and A. Robert Kaufman, a local activist and perennial candidate.

O'Shea denied that Hopkins is "waiting it out." He noted that the two sides have consulted informally several times and met formally twice this week. "We're interested in reaching an accord," he said. "These are our employees and our students."

Jess Walsh, a visiting scholar at Hopkins' Institute for Policy Studies, said that when the protesters sometimes feel depressed, "something happens to bring us hope. It's alternatively fun, stressful, exhausting, demoralizing, inspirational.

"We keep going because we know we're doing the right thing."

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