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Week of 4.27.07

Interview: Fasting For A Change

Daniel Weissman puts up a banner on the first day of the strike.
Daniel Weissman puts up a banner on the first day of the strike. » View Slideshow
Hunger striker Daniel Weissman is a physics graduate student at Stanford University and a member of the Stanford Labor Action Coalition. He spoke to NOW about the nine days (and nights) he spent outdoors fasting to help workers gain a living wage.

NOW: How is your health?

DANIEL WEISSMAN (DW): It's good, surprisingly good. I lost 20 pounds and I got very weak but had no serious health problems.

NOW: We often hear of students going on drinking binges but not so much on hunger strikes. What made you decide to take such a drastic step?

DW: I would have preferred to take a less drastic measure, obviously. We all would have. The problem was that the administration had at first refused to acknowledge our request to meet with them. And then when they finally did acknowledge the request, they refused [to meet us]. So less drastic measures were not working. Ordinary protests, requests for meetings, submitting documents, those things were not having an effect. And even some slightly disruptive protests that involved some degree of civil disobedience, were not getting an effect.

NOW: But I read in the press that the Stanford University spokeswoman, Kate Chesley, said you and your fellow students did not have to go so far to meet with Stanford University President John Hennessey?

DW: That was what they said, but that is not actually the case. We got a letter from them refusing to meet with us.

NOW: What kind of reactions did you get from the university during the protest?

"A bunch of administrators came, and they said 'if you don't leave, you'll get arrested or suspended.'"
DW: They said 'you don't need to be doing this, you can stop fasting right now,' which was a complete contradiction to the way they'd been behaving before. In their press releases they tried to minimize the effect that the fast had on them. I think the final press release said university announces extension to living wage. And it said that [the decision] was announced to us in meetings, when in fact, those meetings were the negotiations where we had gotten them to agree to these extensions to the living wage policy.

NOW: How did you become so impassioned by the issue of the so-called living wage for contract workers, such as janitors, at your university?

DW: I've been interested in this since college. I went to Harvard, and there was a big campaign there, where they occupied the [university] president's office for three weeks.
We actually got the living wage for the workers there, which was very inspiring. Just seeing the difference that it could make for workers really affected me.

NOW: What differences did you see?

Well it's a small amount of money for an institution like Stanford or Harvard, but for the people who are actually receiving a living wage it's a huge difference. It can mean the difference of having to work multiple jobs, or being able to spend time at home with your families, or being able to afford health care for your family.

NOW: You and your fellow fasters and protestors set up tents on campus. What was the atmosphere like?

Students organized a press conference to draw attention to the living wage campaign.
Students organized a press conference to draw attention to the living wage campaign.
» View Slideshow
DW: At times we were kind of tense and worried, especially early on when we weren't getting all the media attention. And there was always way more to do than we had people to do things. But it was also a lot of fun. I think sometimes it was more fun for the fasters, because we could kind of relax when we wanted to without feeling guilty. We'd watch movies, we had karaoke, and we would just kind of hang out.

NOW: What kind of reactions did you get from your fellow students?

DW: Overall, very, very positive. That might be because people who didn't like us didn't want to come up to starving people and say, hey, 'I disagree with what you're doing.' But from what I saw, it was very positive. Everyone was sympathetic and just almost everyone agreed with our basic points.

NOW: How was your group, the Stanford Labor Action Coalition, able to get the university to negotiate?

DW: At first, Hennessey did not want to meet with us. Actually, he saw us the first morning that we were camped out, driving by in his golf cart. And I waved and said, 'good morning.' And he just accelerated off, and did not acknowledge our presence.

At first, what the university said is 'we're trying our best to set up a meeting. But it's just not working and the schedule's too busy.' We started [the hunger strike] on Thursday and by Sunday, we decided to move from our spot out in White Plaza, which is kind of the student area to right in front of his [President Hennessy's] office in the main quad. That got them very, very worried and they called a lot of police. A bunch of administrators came, and they said 'if you don't leave, you'll get arrested or suspended.' And we said, 'we'll only leave when we have a definite meeting time.' They said that it was impossible, it couldn't be done. And we said, 'try harder.' And they came back and said 'okay, it's tomorrow at five.'

NOW: What happened at that meeting?

It was productive and we had another meeting the next day. Then [Hennessey] said he wouldn't meet with us for a few more days. So we kept putting pressure on him and got a meeting on Friday. The day before we had gotten a lot of media attention—we'd come out in the newspapers, and we'd been on TV the night before. The university came in making concessions basically and we got it all resolved [on Friday].

NOW: What advice do you have for other existing or potential student activists?

DW: United Students Against Sweatshops is a great resource and the local labor unions also are extremely helpful. I would say that the number one thing for us was probably getting media attention. And to do that, it was very helpful to figure out what contacts we had with the media and use those to the fullest extent. I would advise people to really have that all planned out ahead of time and worked out as much as they can.

NOW: How did campus workers react to your campaign?

DW: One night, I woke up and I saw a security guard coming over and standing by our campout at four in the morning. He'd just been standing out there, waiting for one of us to wake up, so that he could tell us how much he appreciated what we were doing for workers on campus. That was pretty awesome.

NOW: Your father told us by e-mail that he was worried about you because you had lost so much weight. Now that this is all over, how has he responded?

DW: Very positively. My parents were very worried about my health but they understood that they weren't going to talk me out of it. They always understood that I was trying to do the right thing and I think they're proud of what happened.

NOW: What, if anything, are you going to take away from this experience?

"We really changed the labor policy of this multi-billion corporation, Stanford University."
DW: One thing I'm surprised about is how easy it is to fast. I can't believe I could go for over eight days with no food at all. But more importantly, it's very amazing to think we had four people start fasting and a core group of less than 20 people putting this thing together. And this change is going to affect at least hundreds of workers, possibly more. We really changed the labor policy of this multi-billion corporation, Stanford University. It's amazing to think about what you can do. So it's definitely encouraged me to kind of think big and try and think of some more opportunities to make a change.

Related Links:

NOW: A Living Wage

NOW: Tim Bowles on the campus fight for a "living wage"

The Harvard Crimson: SLAM to fast for security guards

The Stanford Daily: Fast Ends as University promises to expand living wage

United Students Against Sweatshops

Topic Search: Employment/Labor, Freedom of Speech & Protest