By Naomi Grant and Grace Toohey
Almost 20 students blocked traffic on Campus Drive Friday afternoon to protest the campus minimum wage, which sits $1.30 below the Prince George’s County minimum wage.
Students sat on the crosswalk in between the engineering fields and Glenn L. Martin Hall, clapping and chanting, stopping traffic for eight minutes and 25 seconds, symbolizing the hourly wage for on-campus workers. Others supporting the rally joined in their clapping and chanting from the sidewalk.
The campus minimum wage is currently $8.25 per hour, which reflects the state of Maryland’s minimum wage. However, because the University of Maryland is a state institution, it follows the state minimum rather than the county’s minimum wage, which is $9.55 per hour. Before stopping traffic, about 40 students rallied at the “M” circle to protest raising the campus minimum wage.
The Student Labor Action Project organized the protest, though this is an issue they’ve been focusing on all year, said SLAP organizer Chris Bangert-Drowns, a junior economics major who is not currently enrolled in classes.
A few minutes into the traffic protest, the police arrived and asked the protesters to move because they were engaging in “unlawful assembly.” Protesters received two warnings, but the eight minutes and 25 seconds had elapsed shortly after the second warning was issued.
“As far as the civil disobedience goes itself, I think it was successful,” Bangert-Drowns said. “It showed that folks are willing to take risks and put their body on the line when it comes to fighting against poverty.”
A number of people spoke at the rally, including student workers, dining services workers, residential facilities workers and history professor Julie Greene, who studies the history of labor and the working class.
“I’ve taught now at the University of Maryland for seven or eight years and I’ve always been really proud to be here,” Greene said. “Maryland is really remarkable compared to other universities across the United States because it has a real tradition of caring about labor relations and decent working conditions, and takes very seriously the history of labor and of working class people.”
Greene said the fact that the university acquired the archives of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations in 2013 makes it a great place to study labor history.
An employee of the Maryland Food Co-op, Chris Litchfield, who is also a resident of this county, said he came to the rally to express solidarity for the students protesting.
Making $8.25 per hour is “not a living wage in this county. If you want to live in the county and be able to afford things without government assistance, [even] $9.55 is not enough,” Litchfield said.
“I’m not a student worker per se but there are many people on my floor that have to work … to make up for the gap between their tuition costs and the various other expenses,” freshman civil engineering major Brendan Sullivan said. “And I believe that they deserve a higher wage for what they do to keep this campus running … One action doesn’t change the world dramatically. but it just happens incrementally and has to be built over a long time.”
The group has yet to receive administrative support they had hoped for on this issue, Sullivan said.
Bangert-Drowns introduced a bill to the University Senate in February calling for their support of a minimum wage increase for the campus, but the Senate Executive Committee voted against it in April.
In February, SLAP organizers met with university President Wallace Loh and rallied inside the Main Administration Building. Bangert-Drowns said Loh’s primary response at the time was that he would await a bill going through the state Senate that would have raised the minimum wage in this state to $15 an hour by 2020.
“If it had passed it would have been awesome, our goal would have been fulfilled, we could have moved on to the next issue, but that bill died in committee,” Bangert-Drowns said.
Loh said in a statement to The Diamondback that he did support the students’ cause to raise the minimum wage, but had no plan to make it happen beyond the Senate bill, which didn’t move forward this session.
In addition to low wages, some students like Eric Billings, who has worked at the South Campus Dining Hall for four years, say they have to put up with less-than-optimum working conditions.
“At the beginning of April, we had a new rule. From 11 to 1 and [from] 5 to 7, we’re not allowed to get a drink of water,” Billings said. “Now if I get a cup before the peak hours start, I’m good, but anything after that, if my cup is empty, I cannot get a drink of water.” Billings said the same rules apply for using the bathroom.
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story misquoted Chris Bangert-Drowns by saying that the traffic protest showed people are willing to take a risk when “fighting against policies.” The end of the quote should have been “fighting against poverty.” This article has been updated.