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Virginia: Wage Against the Machine
The Cavalier Daily
Josh Fass

February 24, 2011
View the Original Article

Friday’s March Toward a Living Wage seeks to empower the cause for University workers

OUR students, administrators, peer institutions and community all agree that paying workers a living wage is the right thing to do. Last time the issue was up for a referendum, 77 percent of the University student body supported a living wage. President Teresa A. Sullivan, a published labor sociologist, has written, “Being paid a living wage for one’s work is a necessary condition for self-actualization.” Nearly every other top-25 school in the country — as well as the London School of Economics — pays a living wage. The Charlottesville City Council unanimously passed a resolution urging the University to do the same. The painfully sharp disconnect between the undeniable mandate of the stakeholders and actual University policy is deeply unsettling.

Currently, the University pays hundreds of employees wages as low as $10.14 an hour — far below the $11.44 an hour the Economic Policy Institute has determined to be the bare minimum cost of living in Charlottesville. The University calls these wages “entry-level,” but that term is misleading as some employees have worked for years or decades and still are not paid a living wage. To exacerbate the problem, the University outsources much of its labor to nontransparent, for-profit contractors who can pay as little as $7.25 an hour, and the University refuses even to ask these contractors to disclose their labor practices. While University administrators have shown good faith by not laying off employees during the recession, we ask them in the spirit of the same good faith to pay those employees decent wages. Failing to pay a living wage for full-time work entrenches a cycle of economic injustice and smothers upward mobility. This is antithetical to any conception of the University as a site of human progress for the sake of what has been estimated to be less than 0.1 percent of the operating budget.

What explains this disconnect? How can we be in theoretical agreement yet so broken in reality? In this dimension, we exhibit a form of institutional failure that in many ways parallels what sparked the grassroots democratic movements in the Middle East. For decades, peer countries quietly condemned abuses, academics wrote books about them, and citizens quietly protested but functionally accepted rotten conditions. Those who profited from the status quo were not held accountable to public opinion and dragged on with business as usual. Nothing changed until the up-till-then unheard dissenting multitude demonstrated by mass mobilization that they would no longer keep silent. The same is true here. The overwhelming majority supports a living wage, but as long as we fail to act in any meaningful way nothing changes. As a University, we are all too often intellectually active while functionally neutral.

It is our obligation to challenge the inhumane prioritization of profit and undue influence of contractors. Without a visible demonstration of our just conviction, the same forces of stagnant administrative unresponsiveness that passively denied admission to black students until 1950 and women until 1970 will quietly suffocate our quest for equality and justice today. I urge you to join us as we March Toward a Living Wage from Old Cabell Hall at 2:30 p.m. this Friday, Feb. 25. Hundreds of students will be out to make our voices heard and to make history. In the words of Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I urge you not to be neutral now.