The Student Hunger Strike
A living-wage campaign at the University of Virginia has been pressing the university’s six-figure-salary administrators to treat its workers better for the past 14 years, sometimes winning higher wages, but always watching them be wiped out by the soaring cost of living in Charlottesville. The workers, lacking a union, and witnessing retaliation against some who have spoken out, have been reluctant to take the lead in the fight, but students have stepped up to the task.
From February 18 to March 1, UVA students — a dozen at first, but growing to a group of 20 — refused to eat. Some lasted the entire 12 days with no food. Others broke their fast for medical reasons. They all suffered pain and exhaustion. Their joints hurt. Their legs got weak. They had difficulty climbing stairs. They found it harder to carry books, and harder to concentrate. They wore lots of layers despite the spring-like weather, and still felt cold. But they said they found strength and warmth in the growing support for the cause that had led them to launch a hunger strike.
“It’s hard not to eat,” said Marguerite Beattie, a fourth-year psychology major, “but imagining what the workers are going through makes it easier.” “I see workers every day,” she said. “They clean my dorm, the toilets, the showers, every day. Once when we were going on break, I asked one woman whether she had any vacation plans. She said she’d only been on vacation one time in her entire life.”
UVA has long hidden its most poorly compensated workers on the books of private contractors and refused to say how many of them there are or what they are paid. The living-wage campaign has just won a commitment from the university to audit its contractors and report on the number of employees and their pay. The campaign has also won assistance from both the AFL-CIO and the SEIU, one of the latter’s locals having recently committed to organizing UVA contract employees. The student-led campaign is gearing up for greater activism and union organizing this spring, but what achieved these successes and what has led the students (and alumni like me, who were part of the campaign 14 years ago) to say that an all-time high point has been reached in UVA activism is the use of creative nonviolence — the hunger strike the students resorted to this month after countless other tactics had failed to yield fruit.
Among those who came and spoke at the daily rallies were national figures like Jill Stein, Green Party presidential nominee, and representatives of the two labor organizations suddenly inspired to support workers at UVA. Joseph Williams, one of the hunger strikers, is a varsity football player who was willing to risk his position on the team. That sacrifice attracted other students and national media to the cause.
Working In Jefferson’s Sweatshop
Teresa Sullivan became UVA’s first female president in 2010. Sullivan is a labor sociologist who has coauthored a text book that states, “Being paid a living wage for one’s work is a necessary condition for self-actualization….The provision of wages adequate to meet basic needs is a fundamental requirement before work can be experienced as rewarding and meaningful.” But for the past two years Sullivan has done no more to meet the demands of the living-wage campaign than her predecessor.
The reason many workers at UVA don’t take vacations (or eat in restaurants or go to movie theaters) is that, even though they work full time, what they are paid won’t cover their ordinary bills. Many people employed by the university, whether directly or through contractors, take on second jobs. Some have third jobs. Some work second jobs at UVA for lower hourly pay than at their first job — a practice that would seem to violate the legal requirement of time-and-a-half for overtime, except that the two jobs are technically for different employers, one being the university and the other one of its contractors. These long hours are so poorly compensated that many depend on family members and government benefits just to pay for housing, food, clothing, and transportation. There are no extras beyond those necessities.
Living-wage advocates note that just about everyone would prefer to be paid decently for the work they do than to work without fair compensation and be caught in a safety net that might better serve the unemployed. In debates over living-wage proposals, it is always the think tanks serving the hotel and restaurant lobby, such as the Employment Policies Institute, that advocate for earned income tax credits and other mechanisms to transfer the burden of worker pay from large employers to the public at large.
Many of the lowest paid workers at UVA are contract employees. They work for one of the companies the university hires to cook food, cut grass, clean bathrooms, answer phones, etc. — companies such as Aramark, Turners Cleaning Service, and Zaatar Services/Service Master Cleaning. “Bob,” a contract employee working in the dining hall told the living wage campaign that he has worked 45 hours a week for the past 10 years, but was only able to afford a babysitter for his two small children because he had taken on the stress of another 25 hours per week at a second job.
Tom, a direct employee of the university (all but one of these employees’ names have been changed to protect their identities) is a landscaper for the university’s grounds. Tom said he could not think of anyone in his department who didn’t have a second job, and many had a third, while most still clamored for all the overtime they could get on their first job. The stress, he said, was damaging physically and mentally.
“The administration would be better off paying a living wage,” Tom said, “so that people were not sick all the time, stressed all the time, fighting with their wife all the time. When you can’t pay your bills, it’s always on your mind.” Tom said he witnesses alcoholism on a regular basis, as well as cases of domestic violence during the years that he has worked for UVA.
Another landscaping worker, Mike Henrietta (his real name), said it’s not uncommon for colleagues who hunt to share a deer, or for those who raise chickens to share a chicken, with those UVA employees who are in worse straits than themselves. Tom agreed, saying, “A buck will put 80 pounds of meat in your freezer, and that can make a big difference. A lot of guys will do it, in and out of [hunting] season.”
Tom also pointed to a darker side of the desperation among employees at what is often called Mr. Jefferson’s University. “I talked to one of the supervisors,” he said. “He had a rope for a belt, and I asked him why. He said that he’d left his belt and a pair of pants on a chair for a couple of hours and somebody in our department had stolen them.” Gone along with the pair of pants and belt, Tom said, is just about anything that’s left lying loose, including weed-eaters and blowers. “When you’re desperate, you get sticky fingers.”
Martha works as an administrative assistant for a contractor named Morrison Management Specialists at the UVA Hospital. Her 40-hour job was cut back to 36 hours a couple of years ago, leaving her an annual salary of under $27,000. She manages to pay the rent by sharing a four-bedroom apartment with three other people. Many of her colleagues, she said, make significantly less than she does and have children to support. What they complain for want of most, she said, are shoes, pants, books, and clothes for their children for school.
Jane, another contract worker who has been in touch with the living wage campaign is paid $7.50 an hour. That’s $300 a week, or $15,600 per year. That’s not “starting pay” that one might expect to quickly increase; she’s already been working there for years. She has no health benefits and must pay for her own uniform and parking. Even the managers in the company she works for are paid only $9.50/hr.
Working with research by the Economic Policy Institute (not to be confused with the aforementioned Employment Policies Institute), UVA’s living wage campaign has calculated that a living wage in Charlottesville, Virginia, is $13 per hour plus health coverage. That wage, according to EPI, should allow two full-time working adults with two children to pay for just their necessities and nothing more. A single-income household, of course, is left with a greater struggle. Some employees of the University of Virginia, hired through contracting companies, are now paid 58 percent of what they need, or rather of what they would need if they were provided health coverage, which they are not.
UVA has an endowment of over $5 billion and has built many new buildings, including sports facilities, in recent years. One of its vice presidents was paid $650,000 in 2011, one of its professors $561,100, another $518,900, and its new president, Teresa Sullivan, $485,000. David Flood, a graduate student in anthropology and one of the hunger strikers, said that the most generous estimate of what it would cost the university to bring all workers up to a living wage would be less than 1 percent of UVA’s annual budget. (The figure must be guessed at until the university does that audit.)
Charlottesville has just over 40,000 inhabitants, and its largest employer, the university, employs 20,000 people, some commuting from outside the city limits, many of them at poverty wages. Just over 27 percent of Charlottesvillians live below the federal poverty line. The city government has a living wage policy in place and has asked the university to match it. Some UVA employees rely on public housing, social services, and food stamps. One city council member has complained that “the city is subsidizing UVA’s low rates of pay with social safety nets.”
Neighborhoods in Charlottesville are largely segregated by wealth and race, and struggling workers tend not to approach students or tourists with their concerns. Workers fear retaliation if they speak out. In December 1999, a UVA hospital cafeteria cashier named Richelle Burress was suspended for wearing a living wage button on her uniform. Tom said he’d seen workers who had spoken out marginalized and denied any promotion. Everyone asks him how the campaign is going, he says, but none of them will dare join it. Martha agreed, saying, “In a right-to-work state an employer doesn’t really need a reason to fire you, and we know that.” Of course, this can also be true in a non-right-to-work state if a union contract does not prevent it.
In April 2011, the university released a statement saying, “Faculty and staff who, in good faith, engage in constitutionally protected freedom of expression should do so without fear of reprisal.” But many are not convinced. Not only has the university administration been turning down requests for comment from media outlets, according to the living wage campaign’s press contact Emily Filler, but it recently instructed workers not to speak with the media. David Flood, the hunger-striking student, denounced such tactics as illegal, violating First Amendment rights and rights against workplace retaliation. “Employees have been told not to engage with us,” he said.
Flood and his fellow “wagers,” as they call themselves, have organized, educated, rallied, staged sit-ins, won the support of over 300 faculty members, recruited the help of numerous organizations on campus and off, and published and annually updated a 75-page report called “Keeping Our Promises,” which makes a historical, moral, and legal argument for a living wage. Some 150 localities, and 22 of the 25 top-ranked universities in the country have living wage policies, and a number of studies having concluded that they reduce poverty without reducing employment.
UVA’s living wage campaign, the first on a college campus, was launched in 1998, demanding an $8/hr living wage, indexed to keep pace with the cost of living. In 2000, UVA raised its lowest pay for direct employees from $6.10 to $8.19, without ever acknowledging the campaign, and without indexing the new rate to inflation. Unfortunately, the move didn’t help most of the low-wage workers, who are employed through contractors. The $8 campaign won living wages from the city, the public school system, and many private employers in Charlottesville. But at UVA the wages continued to drop in real terms as the cost of living soared.
In 2006, 17 students were arrested for sitting in the president’s office, and a professor who tried to join them was arrested and later fired. The university raised wages once more, again without acknowledging the campaign, and again without indexing them to inflation.
President Sullivan has pointed to a 2006 state attorney general’s opinion that a living wage at UVA would not be legal, an argument to which the campaign has replied with its own legal opinions and examples from around the country. Sullivan has argued that UVA now pays $13 with benefits included, but the campaign’s demand is for $13 plus benefits, and for contract employees to be covered as well. The president has claimed that she cannot promise cost of living increases without knowing what future budgets will be, even though other expenses of far greater dollar amounts have been committed to. She has said state-imposed wage freezes cannot be predicted, but the campaign says such freezes do not prevent raising the minimum rate.
UVA’s associate vice-president for public affairs, Carol Wood, declined to comment for this article.
The hunger strike was timed to overlap a three-day meeting of UVA’s Board of Visitors. The BOV is the corporate board of the University of Virginia, its members appointed by the governor of Virginia and approved by the state’s General Assembly. The BOV is responsible for long-term planning and approves new policies and budgets at UVA. Flood and other students met twice with Sullivan and other top administrators. Flood described their decision making structure as “opaque,” but said he had no doubt that if Sullivan and her administration agreed to a living wage, they could implement it and so inform the Board of Visitors.
Emily Filler was encouraged by the hunger strike, saying that in the course of two weeks a great deal of attention had been gained, many more students had become aware of the campaign, the university had for the first time agreed to audit its contractors and report on its employees’ numbers and what they are paid, and two labor organizations — SEIU and AFL-CIO — had been brought to campus because of the attention surrounding the hunger strike.
“Right after spring break,” Filler said, “we’ll start organizing contract employees.”
Asked if the campaign was over now that she was going back to eating, Marguerite Beattie said, “Oh, we’re not giving up until there’s a living wage.”
David Swanson is the author of War Is A Lie. He blogs at davidswanson.org and warisacrime.org.
Co-published with Alternet.