Food for Thought

by Don Boudreaux on March 24, 2005

in Myths and Fallacies

Several students at Georgetown University staged a hunger strike to shame the University into raising the wages it pays to its janitors. Today that strike ended when the University agreed to increase janitors’ wages and fringe benefits.

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? Why was the janitors’ employer targeted for its failure to extend charity?

Why didn’t the hunger-strikers demand that George Mason University or Catholic University extend charity to Georgetown University’s janitors? Or why didn’t these strikers demand that all merchants in Northwest DC extend charity to these janitors? Why didn’t the strikers give their own money as charity to the janitors? (They’re students, you say; so they don’t have much extra cash. Well, they can take out loans to give charity today to the janitors and then work after graduation to repay these loans.) 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.

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