Several students at Georgetown University staged a hunger strike that coincides with Lent, the Christian season of sacrifice, until the university paid higher wages to service workers – which consists largely of contract janitors, food service workers and security guards. The University eventually succumbed to the strikers wishes.
What are your thoughts on such a protest? This is what economists responded to the event.
Don Boudreaux, Chairman of the Department of Economics at George Mason University, writes:
I have nothing against Georgetown U. raising the amount it pays to its janitors. But the full picture of this little episode is different than the cropped snapshots that I see in the newspapers and hear on the local radio stations. The pop image is of selfless, concerned students making a noble sacrifice to help voiceless, hapless janitors get a better deal from a penny-pinching University bureaucracy.
This pop image is distorted.
Why was the pre-strike janitorial wage as low as it was? Answer: because Georgetown University discovered that, at that wage, it got as many janitors as it needed, of sufficient quality, to perform the desired cleaning services. To pay more would have been an act of charity to the janitors and not a act of commerce.
Now there’s nothing wrong with charity; I applaud it (when it’s done wisely). But why, in this case, did the hunger-striking students single out Georgetown University as an alleged malefactor?
…Or why didn’t these hunger-striking students demand that Georgetown University increase its charitable contributions, not to its relatively well-off janitors, but to seriously poor people in sub-Saharan Africa?
I’m not being flippant. I’m quite serious. Because Georgetown University is no monopsonistic buyer of janitorial services, it must compete in the market to buy these services. The wages it pays for its janitors are, therefore, competitive. Paying anything more than these wages to secure the desired number of janitors is, therefore, charity. And while there’s nothing wrong with Georgetown University extending charity to its janitors (or to anyone else), there’s also nothing obligatory about it. The fact that Georgetown paid its janitors what it did was not, contrary to the hunger-striking student’s claims, a moral breach.
There is more here.
Mark Steckbeck, economics professor at Hillsdale College, writes:
Their group, Georgetown Living Wage Coalition, has been around for three years now. Obviously unsucessful in their efforts to change the university’s wage policy, how would things be different had they instead a) raised money for the workers themselves (know what it’s like to be a development officer begging for money to serve the needs of others), or b) been teaching these workers other skills like management or accounting or economics, thus enabling them to find alternative means of employment.
He also writes:
…I was attempting to make the following two points: 1) That it’s self-serving, not other-serving, to protest on behalf of one party that another party should be forced to subsidize the living standards of the first party. 2) That all too often people act on emotion rather than reason, and consequently their actions may fail to help—often hinder—the plight of those on whose behalf they are protesting. If these students cared for the plight of low skilled poor immigrants, which I believe that they do, there are other, more fruitful means of assisting them.
Update: LivingWageTruth has more on this event.