As the new day’s light cast itself on the facade of Healy Hall on the morning of Friday, Dec. 9, the suite of offices of University President John J. DeGioia stood silent. Eight members of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee had woken up to watch the sunrise from the window of what had become their home over the past 22 hours.
The students’ sit-in protesting the university’s licensing contract with Nike was approaching its second day.
For more than a year, the students and the wider university community had raised concerns about the company’s labor practices since workers in Nike’s Hansae factory in Vietnam went on strike in November 2015.
On the Tuesday prior to the start of the sit-in, the group delivered a letter to DeGioia’s office, imploring Chief of Staff Joe Ferrara and the administration to read a newly released report from the Worker Rights Consortium – an independent labor rights monitoring group – that detailed human rights abuses at the Hansae factory. They demanded that the university cut the contract before business hours ended Wednesday.
But on Wednesday evening, the company accused of wage theft, verbal abuse of workers, discrimination and other health and safety violations by the WRC report remained a licensee of Georgetown University. By that point, the group had already spent several days preparing. As their final push, the students had decided to occupy DeGioia’s office suite Thursday morning until the university took action.
“We knew that we had to escalate,” said GSC member and lead negotiator Lily Ryan (COL ’18), who stayed in the office suite for 35 hours.
The first study day of the semester saw campus under heightened stress. The members of GSC were worried, too, but for a different reason. The demands laid out in their letter had not been met, and a meeting with Ferrara on Wednesday confirmed that the university did not intend to cut the contract.
On Thursday morning, 17 members of GSC entered Healy Hall in groups of two and three, surveilling the area surrounding DeGioia’s office suite. They hid in bathrooms and empty classrooms to make sure the coast was clear before congregating.
At 9:45 a.m., they stormed the suite.
DeGioia had been out of town, and was not in the office when the students entered. Within two minutes of the sit-in, the first officers from the Georgetown University Police Department arrived. Shortly after, Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson and Ferrara showed up, too. Ferrara responded immediately to Ryan and the group’s demand, with a message that the university was still pursuing a contract with Nike.
“What we’re trying to do is get an agreement so that we can get the outcome you all want, that we all want, which is access for the Worker Rights Consortium to do what they do, which is provide independent, rigorous monitoring of conditions in these plants,” Ferrara told the students.
The students were then told that they were allowed to remain in the suite until the close of business hours at 6 p.m. However, those who left the suite to use the bathroom would be prevented from re-entering by GUPD. But the students had prepared for that: They entered the suite with a cat litter box to use as a bargaining tool.
The initial hours were spent waiting for news from the administration, support from the campus community and progress on the negotiations.
News of the sit-in spread across campus. The students had hung a banner shortly after they began the sit-in that read “Occupied until DeGioia cuts Nike” on the exterior archway of Healy Hall, visible to the thousands of students, faculty and visitors traversing Healy Circle that day.
Meanwhile, community members were gathering in Dahlgren Quadrangle for a rally to support the sit-in. About 50 people attended the rally, where international business ethics professor John Kline and head of the women’s and gender studies department You-Me Park, among other Georgetown and D.C. community members, spoke about the importance of solidarity with the factory workers.
Following the rally, the supporters marched to the foyer outside DeGioia’s offices, where they began their own sit-in. They held signs with messages including “Solidarity with Hansae workers” and “We want DeGioia to #JustDoTheRightThing.”
In the office, Olson had established a one in, one out bathroom use policy. GUPD officers were instructed to check the students’ pockets when they returned from the bathroom to ensure they were not bringing in supplies from outside the suite. At times, students were prevented from leaving the office to refill empty water bottles.
The Licensing Oversight Committee was scheduled to meet at this hour to be updated on the status of the Nike contract negotiations. Two of its members, Isabelle Teare (COL ’18) and Ryan, had a scheduling conflict — they were both at the sit-in.
When they tried to phone in to the meeting, the LOC denied them remote access in a break from usual practice that allows for members to call in, citing the fact that Teare and Ryan would be calling from a room with nonmembers present.
The students joined in two prayer services that afternoon. Theology professor Fr. Raymond Kemp led the group in a prayer for strength and solidarity for the sit-in, before Ryan led the group in an Ignatian prayer for the workers in Hansae an hour and a half later. The Ignatian prayer was written specifically by the social justice group Ignatian Solidarity Network for those in manufacturing supply chains.
“So many of them are working in insecure jobs that pay too little. These people are hidden to us, hidden behind the glossy catalogs,” the students prayed. “Hidden behind the store displays, hidden behind the effortless click of online shopping.”
Olson and Ferrara returned — but not with news on the negotiations.
“We would ask you at about this point — it’s about 6 p.m. — to begin making your way out into the foyer,” Olson said.
After negotiating, administrators said GSC members would be allowed to stay until Ferrara returned with updates.
An hour later, Ferrara had the first update on the contract negotiations with Nike: The university was continuing to pursue the contract.
“We think if we can get to an agreement where we have WRC access, it’s what’s best for the workers,” Ferrara said.
The day drew on while progress had stultified. An hour later, however, the students were visited yet again — this time by Olson. He did not have updates on the negotiations. Instead, he brought with him another announcement: The students would potentially face Code of Student Conduct sanctions if they did not vacate the offices.
Nine demonstrators voluntarily left the suite to avoid risking eligibility for study abroad programs and scholarships, leaving eight students — who were now facing potential Code of Student Conduct sanctions, including housing sanctions and fines — in the office overnight.
For Sonia Adjroud (SFS ’20), Gabe Mielke (SFS ’20), Sophie Bauerschmidt Sweeney (COL ’17), Kory Stuer (COL ’19), Patrick Bylis (COL ’17), Joseph Gomez (SFS ’19), Ryan and Teare, the risk was worth it.
The idea of a potential sanction was inconsequential to Bauerschmidt Sweeney.
“What it really comes down to is thinking of the fact that thousands of workers walked out of a factory in a country where it’s illegal to organize, and they did that under penalty of death,” Bauerschmidt Sweeney said of her commitment to the workers in the factory in Vietnam, where it is illegal to go on strike. “In comparison to that, a conduct violation is really minimal.”
The hours following the nine students’ departure were spent strategizing for the next day. The GSC members used a GroupMe chat to communicate, preventing GUPD officers in the room from hearing their plans.
These hours would also prove to be some of the most uplifting and unifying of the sit-in. The students played games and created a “Humans of DeGioia’s Office” series on their Facebook page.
Although they were careful not to strategize out loud around GUPD officers, the students engaged with them in conversation to pass the time. One officer even took a photo of them to put on Facebook.
The second floor of Healy Hall briefly returned to its familiar quiet as the students in the foyer departed at the building’s close. The eight students in the office settled onto the carpeted floor of the president’s suite — most of them without pillows and blankets. In the rush to leave, the nine students who departed at 8:30 accidentally took some blankets and pillows along with them.
Ryan, who estimates that she could not have slept for more than three hours, said she felt out of rhythm and uncertain of what lay ahead.
“It really was just so cold. And it was just really uncomfortable,” Ryan said. “It was also kind of this mixture of adrenaline from being there, like ‘Oh my gosh, we’re here, this is exciting,’ but also a healthy dose of dread, being like ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do tomorrow,’ because we hadn’t thought of a plan really. … We went to bed in good spirits, and not really knowing what we were going to do the next day.”
As another day in the office began, the students chanted for three hours before Ferrara arrived with an update: The university was going to push for access and independent reporting for the Worker Rights Consortium.
“The thing we’re pushing for is an agreement that would facilitate WRC access, independent reporting, and that’s what we’re pushing for,” Ferrara said.
A lack of progress on negotiations would not be the only disappointment that morning. As it turned out, the ramifications of spending the night on a cold, hard floor were more serious than the hours of sleep the students lost. Teare had been feeling sick throughout the morning, and concerns for her health along with the fear of the rest of the group getting ill prompted her decision to leave the suite at 11:30 a.m.
Ryan said the following hours were the lowest, as the students struggled to strategize a way forward. The occupiers, whose previously active and entertaining Facebook live feed was now silent, began to face the potential of having to continue the sit-in over the weekend.
“I don’t know that that would have happened. I think it still would have been powerful, but it was a daunting task,” Ryan said. “The fact that we were hungry and tired and really panicking at that point — we had a lot of different plans but we weren’t sure what we should go with.”
Sleep-deprived and unsure about the result of their efforts, the students were now running low on food and water. They had consumed most of the food they brought, so their supply now consisted of some peanut butter and jelly, bread, nuts, granola bars and two or three bottles of water. Amid these worsening conditions, Ferrara returned to tell the students there would be no progress in the negotiations with Nike before the weekend.
“We are not going to solve Nike today,” Ferrara told the students.
Ferrara made an alternative offer of providing GSC with daily updates on the negotiations with Nike, and an in-person meeting with DeGioia.
However, this was not enough for the students. On behalf of the group, Ryan requested a written statement by the end of the night affirming that Georgetown would not renew the contract with Nike if the WRC was not granted full independent access and reporting.
As the prospect of staying over the weekend drew near, the occupiers began brainstorming escalation tactics they hoped they would never have to use. At this time, the negotiations process saw the introduction of two new members: Kline and professor Joe McCartin, director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.
Kline and McCartin became mediators between the administration and the students. They helped GSC convey both its emphasis on the need for independent monitoring to end the negotiations and its willingness to escalate the sit-in if that condition was not met.
“We could still be in there if they hadn’t been there,” Ryan said in an interview with The Hoya after the sit-in.
With Kline and McCartin on board, the sit-in reached a turning point toward a hopeful outcome. Looking toward the goal of an agreement, students began packing up their belongings in anticipation of soon reaching a deal with the university.
An increase of attention on the sit-in from media sources like The Washington Post, The Guardian and local station WUSA9, on which GSC member Vincent DeLaurentis (SFS ’17) appeared Friday evening, was putting strain on the university’s public image, Ryan said.
The combination of these factors pushed the university to finally take action.
Thirty-five hours after the students entered the suite, the university and the students reached a deal. The students and the university agreed to hold a meeting by Dec. 14, in which they would discuss the negotiations with Nike, confirm to sign a contract that guarantees independent access and reporting for the WRC and discuss how labor codes could be integrated into a future contract with Nike.
“We respect our students’ right to express themselves, to advocate for the issues that they think are important and I’m just glad that we’ve reached an agreement,” Ferrara said in an interview with The Hoya following the announcement.
The three GUPD officers left the room and the students had the office to themselves for about 15 minutes before their exit.
“We still had a bit of time after that because we had to collect everything and cry a little bit, feel really excited before we went out,” Ryan said.
They left the suite at 8:30 p.m.
As the seven remaining students filed out of the suite, their exuberance was impossible to hide. The sleep lost and the looming stress of finals seemed far away as their voices filled the foyer with chants of “I believe that we will win.”
Their smiling faces descended the stairs of the president’s suite, walking over the floors they had lived on for the last day and a half. The building would close that night at 2 a.m., emptied of students and administrators, leaving behind only the echo of chants that clamored for justice over 35 hours in Healy Hall.
Hoya Staff Writers Jeff Cirillo, Jesus Rodriguez and Tara Subramaniam contributed reporting.
Words by Jeanine Santucci and Ian Scoville
Videos edited by Jack Martin/The Hoya
Cover Photo: Clara Mejía Orta for The Hoya