Demonstrating that protests still work on campus

Hopkins: Students have made progress using tactics from the 1960s to persuade the university to provide living wage increases for its employees

May 17, 1999|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN STAFF

Bill Tiefenwerth might have felt a bit nostalgic one day last week. Outside his office windows on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University were the sounds of strident speeches and the sight of waving banners, even a bit of guerrilla theater.

It was a political demonstration, once as common as final exams at a place like Hopkins, but something of an endangered species for the past couple of decades. They have made a comeback this year, not only at Hopkins but also at universities across the country.

At most campuses, the issue moving students has been ensuring that apparel carrying the school logo is not made in foreign sweatshops. At Hopkins, the protests have been aimed at guaranteeing a "living wage" for university employees -- making the school a national leader on the issue.

"It did take me back," says Tiefenwerth, 48, director of volunteer service at Hopkins who went to Towson State College in the days of protest against the Vietnam War, the establishment and whatever other targets presented themselves.

"The amount of rhetoric, the way the speeches were delivered was similar, but the content was a bit different," he said. "It wasn't about something global, it was focusing on something happening at Hopkins."

The living wage is defined as the pay needed to keep a family of four above the federal poverty level, currently $7.75 per hour in Baltimore, according to the Hopkins Student Labor Action Committee, which has organized rallies during the school year.

"This is an issue that is crucial to the people of Baltimore," says SLAC member Latanya Roach, an undergraduate from Virginia. "Hopkins employs many of those people."

In response to the protests, Hopkins President William R. Brody released a letter a few weeks ago stating all full-time university employees are paid at least $7.75 an hour and efforts will be made over the next three years to insure that rate for part-time workers and those employed by subcontractors.

"It was a partial victory," says SLAC member Christopher Powers, a graduate student in German. "It showed we were able to produce enough pressure to make an institution budge. But it is not a victory in real terms."

SLAC members are concerned that the $7.75 figure will not rise as the cost of living increases during the next three years and that health benefits are not assured for these employees.

That was the focus of last week's demonstration, which drew about 50 students during exam week, less than half the number attending the group's most successful rallies. Political science graduate student David Snyder dressed as the Hopkins Blue Jay mascot and, in a bit of guerrilla theater, was turned into a believer in the living wage cause.

Demonstrators traipsed through the lunch area of Levering Hall and into the administrative offices at nearby Garland Hall, presenting a statement to a secretary who blocked the way to the president's office.

SLAC members deny they are adopting tactics that have a nostalgic appeal but are otherwise anachronistic in the late 1990s.

"People who came of age in the '60s do not have a patent on holding demonstrations," says Amy Menzer, a graduate student in geography and environmental engineering.

Snyder agrees. "As these demonstrations got bigger, they put the idea of a living wage in public discourse at the university."

SLAC member Stephanie Tang, a senior, says the demonstrations help to counter the image of Hopkins as an apathetic campus.

"If people are told they are apathetic, they believe it," she says. "It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The demonstrations showed them they could make a difference.

"The turnouts were much bigger than we expected," she says. "All of us see this as something growing rather than stagnating."

Snyder says he and several other SLAC members have traveled to meetings with fellow activists at

Yale, Stanford and Harvard during the past few weeks, learning about the sweatshop issue while teaching about the living wage campaign that is starting to catch on elsewhere.

The numbers involved in such activism are tiny compared with the main avenue of social involvement on campus -- volunteering for programs such as tutoring, teaching and mentoring. Tiefenwerth says about 1,000 students are active in his office. They have political views that range from conservative Republican to libertarian to liberal Democrat to radical activist.

"Volunteer work is really important," says Menzer. "But it doesn't get at the roots of the problem. It is great to tutor kids, but you have to ask why it is that you need a tutoring program."

Menzer says she became active in such issues while an undergraduate at Temple University in Philadelphia.

"I really wanted to be involved in city politics," she says. "I think we should use the privileged position we have as students to apply pressure in a way that has a broader impact. And I think it's important to work with people of different class and backgrounds."

Snyder sees his activism as a way of applying his academic studies -- in philosophy as an undergraduate at Goucher and now in political science -- to the real world.

"The question I'm trying to answer is how do you make philosophy and political theory relevant to people's lives," he says.

"People have strong feelings about things. They are ready to make judgments and act on them."

Tiefenwerth says he hears similar comments from his volunteers. "If they have one thing in common, they are all interested in ethics," he says. "I don't know what to attribute that to, but they are all asking ethical questions rather than political ones."

Pub Date: 05/17/99

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