Arts & Video
News Archives
About LaborNet

Posted on Tue, Jun. 03, 2003

Stanford students on Day 6 of fast
By Kim Vo
Mercury News

THE HUNGER STRIKE AT Stanford University entered its sixth day Monday, with the six fasting students growing wan and weak.

They would often sit instead of stand, at times leaning on each other, eyes glazed, as they tried to conserve their diminishing energy. But their words remained resolute: They would not eat until Stanford vowed to to change its labor policies, especially as they applied to low-tier workers: janitors, cooks and other blue-collar employees.

The students are part of a campus movement trying to pressure Stanford to create a universitywide labor policy that would address subcontracting, living wages and educational opportunities for workers. Most important to the activists is that students and the workers they're trying to help have a key role in developing that policy.

Though Stanford adopted a limited living-wage policy last year, the university in early spring rejected the broader code of conduct students wanted. Stanford has said some of the students' demands were economically naive and that the university would not give up the right to dictate its labor practices.

But now, with students camped outdoors under a high hot sun and refusing to eat for nearly a week, the university is feeling the pressure to reconsider. President John Hennessy and high-ranking administrators spent the weekend negotiating with students. After breaking off Saturday night, talks resumed at 7 a.m. Monday. There was no agreement by 9 p.m.

``We're getting close. We're really getting there,'' student Amanda Cassel told a crowd of more than a hundred students and workers at a noontime rally Monday.

Stanford's proposal ``would allow for important input into workplace issues,'' said Gordon Earle, Stanford's vice president for public affairs, who has participated in the negotiations. Under that offer, students and workers would have the president's ear, but they would be limited to an advisory role.

The university remains ``very, very concerned about the health of students,'' Earle said.

The fast was organized by the Coalition for Labor Justice, which knits together several student groups on the issue of workers rights. In the past two years, these students have organized marches, camped out in front of the president's office and been arrested for trespassing for protesting subcontracting at the Stanford Medical Center.

The fast is the most extreme protest the group has done, and it's run the gamut from righteous to ridiculous.

Example: The students were originally supposed to camp in front of the president's office, but they didn't get permission to be there. They moved when told because, though they are protesting the university's practices and accusing them of being callous toward workers, they didn't want to get in trouble.

And a student insisted that this action be called a fast not a hunger strike because ``fast'' sounds respectful and ``hunger strike'' sounds like students were pressuring administrators.

Before the fast began Wednesday afternoon, students finished their term papers early and explained to their professors why they would be missing class.

A network of caretakers supervise the students 24 hours each day, making sure they drink two water bottles every four hours, stay out of the sun and rest. Reporters wanting to interview the students are asked to submit questions in writing, carefully phrased not to upset the students, because an interview's verbal jousting can tax their energy. There's usually silence as students consider the question, and a few days into the fast, the pauses were punctuated by growling stomachs.

A union employee takes the students' blood pressure and temperature several times each day to monitor their health. Service Employees International Union Local 715 represents 2,500 Stanford employees and has helped students on many of their actions.

Workers visit the students each day, thanking them for their protest and often bringing carnations to an altar that has been erected near the protester's campsite.

``When workers come they thank us, but we can't do enough for them,'' said Linda Tran, one of the strikers. ``They put in all this work to make the university run.''

Leticia Ramirez said she and her fellow students are determined to fast as long as it takes, even though she's been dizzy and tired. ``If we fought for two years,'' she said, ``why wouldn't we fight two more days, three more, four.''


Contact Kim Vo at kvo@mercurynews.com or (650) 688-7571.
2003 Mercury News and wire service sources

contact LaborNet

copyright 2003 © LaborNet