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Virginia: Students Rally for Living Wage
The Cavalier Daily
Michelle Davis

February 28, 2011
View the Original Article

As the Board of Visitors convened Friday, more than 200 workers and University students assembled on the southern part of the Lawn, unfazed by the gusty winds, to march for a living wage.

The rally was part of the Living Wage Campaign, which calls upon University officials to provide all University employees with a wage that is sufficient to meet the cost of living.

Currently, the lowest paid University employee receives $10.14 an hour, a rate that students in the group want to raise to $11.44 an hour to match the amount that the City of Charlottesville pays its lowest earners.

The Friday march was organized to coincide with the Board meeting to “put pressure on the BOV and President Sullivan to take our demands seriously by demonstrating our growing support on Grounds,” according to the campaign website.

“We are eager to support the efforts of administrators to create policies that have the well-being of every member of our community at heart,” Greg Casar, a fourth-year College student and organizer for Workers and Students United, said in an e-mail. “[We] organized the march … not as a sign of antagonism, but in order to demonstrate that hundreds of students, faculty, staff and Charlottesville residents consider the issue of wages at the University to be an immediate priority.”

The march also was supported by organizations such as EngageUVa and Flash Seminars, the Black Student Alliance, the Latino Student Alliance, Queer and Allied Activism, Virginia Organizing and the Living Wage Faculty Support Committee. Second-year College student Madeleine Hambleton attended the march and noted the diversity of the crowd of supporters which included students, faculty, community members and University employees.

“[The diversity] is representative of the fact that this is an issue which shapes and affects our entire community,” Hambleton said in an e-mail. “I was shocked when I first learned that the University doesn’t ensure that [its] workers are paid the living wage; for me it undermines the honor and morals which this University works so diligently to instill in its students,”

Speakers at the event included members of WASU, as well as Prof. Frank Dukes, head of the University and Community Action for Racial Equity.

“[Dukes] encouraged us to advance our campaign in a spirit of love for this institution, as a way of making it all that it can be,” University graduate student Jason Hickel said. “A university that prioritizes the well-being of each and every one of its members is one that we can be proud of.”

Despite support for the campaign, President Teresa A. Sullivan put the debate into context. She noted that the University has not raised salaries since 2007; budget cuts from the state pose an obstacle to increasing wages; employees may face more pay cuts this year to help fund benefits programs; more than 90 percent of private donations are earmarked for specific purposes; commercial and living prices may rise in response to an increase in the wage; and it is unclear who should determine what a ‘living wage’ actually constitutes.

Nevertheless, both Casar and Hickel noted that funding a living wage for employees would cost less than 0.1 percent of the University’s nearly $3 billion in annual spending.

“So it’s not like the money is not there,” Casar said. “A tiny reallocation of the budget would go a long way toward securing fundamental rights for all our community members before buying so many unnecessary luxuries.”

Casar said progress has been made, as the wage has risen — albeit by a small amount — during the past decade. He also noted that of the U.S. News and World Report’s top 25 schools, the University pays its employees less than nearly every other one.

“We realize that the budget is tight because of the recession,” Casar said. “But we also realize that hundreds of our employees are struggling to make ends meet for their families because we have collectively failed over the years to make them a priority. Also, contract workers can still be paid as little as the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.”

University officials acknowledged the protestors’ concerns.

“There is an appreciation for how difficult it is and the concerns that we have for them,” Susan Carkeek, vice president for human resources at the University, said at the Board meeting. “When we couldn’t do salary increases, we gave [University employees] credits to offset the cost of their benefits because we know health insurance is expensive. So we are doing everything we can, but we kind of got stopped … It is frustrating to all of us. I think we have the same goal in mind.”

The march began on the steps of the Old Cabell Hall and snaked around the Rotunda to end on the Lawn. Workers in the West Range Café heard the protesters.

“At one point … [the workers] came out to wave and cheer with us,” Hambleton said. “They knew we were fighting for them, as well as for the dignity of our community as a whole.”