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Virginia: Group Seeks Higher Wages
The Cavalier Daily
Mike Lang

October 26, 2010
View the Original Article

Living wage campaign revisits University with rally, pushes for $11.44

Students and faculty members called upon University officials to raise wages for the University’s lowest paid workers at a rally in Newcomb Ballroom last night.

The “Rally For A Living Wage” was organized by Workers and Students United, a student activist group that spearheads the living wage campaign on Grounds.

The campaign is rooted in the belief that all direct and contracted employees of the University should earn a reasonable wage with which they can support their families.

“A living wage is about ensuring that every full-time employee has the freedom to live a decent life,” WASU member Jason Hickel said. “A living wage does not have to mean higher tuition or higher taxes. It simply means prioritizing the well-being of the people who make this institution run.”

The student group released a research document entitled, “Keeping Our Promises,” which outlined “legal, moral and economic reasons” in support of the Living wage campaign, Casar said.

“The release … is a meaningful and symbolic illustration of students’ continued interest in these issues,” said Erin Franey,a student leader with the group.

Additionally, the group released a list of demands to University officials. At the top of the list was a demand for the University to pay all employees a minimum wage of $11.44 per hour — $4.19 more than the federally mandated wage and $1.30 more than the University’s current compensation — and provide health benefits to all direct and contracted employees.

Among those in attendance to support the cause were Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris, City Council Members Kristin Szakos and Satyendra Huja, members of the living wage campaign at the College of William & Mary and several University faculty members who announced the formation of a committee to work closely with the student cause.

“We are a recently assembled group of faculty committed to giving various kinds of support to the student movement,” English Prof. Susan Fraiman said. “We are grateful to have been roused from our studies by a particularly passionate student group.”

Group membership spans across six disciplines and is currently comprised of 15 faculty members, Fraiman said, some of whom also took the stage.

“We believe somehow that the minimum wage, however low it might be, somehow keeps creeping upwards. This is not true.” History Prof. Tico Braun said, noting that the national minimum wage was not raised between 1997 and 2007 — the longest period in U.S. history in which the wage was not adjusted.. Braun noted the minimum wage reached its peak in 1968 when it was equivalent to $10.10 per hour today upon adjustments for inflation.

“It has been downhill for American workers ever since,” Braun said. “Rich people are getting richer, poor people are getting poorer, and this has to stop.”

Norris expressed a similar sentiment with a City Council resolution calling upon the University to follow the city’s model in providing a living wage to all employees. The city currently employs at a minimum wage of $11.44 per hour.

A student panel that shared anonymous testimonials from University workers struggling to make ends meet — and often working more than 12 hours a day — also spoke to this concern.

“We’re essential workers, we make this place run, but we’re at the bottom of the pay scale,” one testimonial read.

But even as members of the University community urge administrators to raise staff wages, the University has maintained that it is unable to do so. Given salary freezes and the scaling back of state funding, higher wages would not be feasible without the elimination of certain positions, said Susan Carkeek, University vice president and chief human resources officer.

“Under these circumstances, to increase the minimum hiring rate the University would need to employ fewer persons,” Carkeek said. “Each person could receive higher pay but the cost would be cutting out a layer of employees whom we are now able to hire, train and develop.”

Carkeek also said the University emphasizes and facilitates career advancement for its entry-level employees.

“We give every employee an opportunity to grow with the University and to improve their salaries as they develop skills and assume responsibilities,” she said. “We offer free training, and employees have $2,000 per year to further their education at any accredited institution.”

Still, some living wage advocates see an unfair distribution of wealth at the University, pointing to a recent report that revealed 11 of the 15 highest paid state employees were University officials.

“The living wage campaign will not be over until students, faculty and staff succeed in bringing some new math to the University,” Fraiman said.

These advocates hope to gain ground with University President Teresa A. Sullivan in an upcoming meeting.

“This is different from past living wage campaigns because we have a new president,” Casar said. “We believe we can work together collaboratively with her to get a new long-term solution for the problem.”

Rally attendees were asked to pledge their support in a petition as well as write letters to Sullivan urging her to embrace the movement.

“We are here tonight because we have a voice, and this is our moment to use it,” Hickel said.