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Virginia: Waging the Expectations
The Cavalier Daily
Carl David Goette-Luciak and Josh Fass

April 15, 2011
View the Original Article

On Inauguration Day, a revitalized Living Wage campaign reflects on its history and seeks progress with a new administration

TODAY, as we inaugurate our first female president, we can be proud of the progress this university has made toward overcoming its history of exclusion. However, as much as things have changed, the date April 15 also should remind us that some calls for justice have gone unanswered for far too long.

On April 15, 1998, faculty, staff, students and Charlottesville residents united to a launch a campaign for a living wage to ensure all employees at this university would be be paid wages commensurate with the basic cost of living in Charlottesville. Their call for justice echoed those delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he visited Charlottesville in 1963.

The group’s protests for economic justice were not new to the University either. As early as 1971, students had stood outside the Rotunda, demanding fair pay for University employees.

Despite being fully employed, as much as a third of the University’s staff was eligible for food stamps, and most worked second jobs to provide for their families. The dozens of professors, community leaders, workers and students who campaigned for just compensation to University employees never were granted a meeting with administrators to discuss their concerns. Instead, they demonstrated vocally, raising the questions of the University’s responsibility to Charlottesville as the area’s largest employer.

Within one year, the campaign’s moral arguments convinced the City of Charlottesville to pay all of its workers a living wage. The City continues to urge the University to do the same. Amid growing pressure and a momentous activist movement, the University raised its wages to what constituted a living wage in 2000, $8 an hour. The University, however, never acknowledged the influence of the campaign in its decision and never adopted the principles of a living wage.

For this reason the new wage was not indexed to inflation, and within a few years real wages slid back to where they started. Until University workers are paid wages that account for regular increases in the local cost of living, they will continue to struggle year after year at the bottom of the pay scale.

In 2005, a group of students took up the movement’s mantle with renewed vigor. They published an extensive research report that documented the insecure and unjust economic conditions faced by University workers and provided clear evidence of the University’s ability to provide a living wage for all its employees.

Students held rallies and teach-ins that brought the important questions of justice and poverty in Charlottesville to the forefront again. They applied the critical perspectives they had learned in class to the realities of the University community. Living wage advocates urged the University to live up to its Jeffersonian ideals. While Charlottesville continued its commitment to workers, the University administration claimed its hands were tied.

In hopes of forcing an honest dialogue about the University’s unfair wage policy, 17 students marched to the office of President John T. Casteen III. When they were denied a dialogue, they sat down and refused to leave.

Over the next few days, the students attempted to negotiate with the president, who indicated no interest in improving the livelihoods of the lowest-paid. Instead of engaging in good-faith dialogue, on today’s date, April 15, President Casteen directed police to arrest the students. The summer after the 2006 sit-in, the University raised wages, even after insisting to the students that it would be impossible. As in 2000, however, the University never acknowledged a responsibility to pay a wage that met the cost of living or was indexed to inflation.

Exactly five years after the arrest of the University 17, Teresa Sullivan’s inauguration today serves as a symbol of progress for a University that once denied admission to women. The issues that have made April 15 a significant day in the past, however, remain unchanged or worse despite the undeniable capacity to rectify them.

Today, fifteen years after the publication of the infamous “Muddy Floor” report, racial disparities at the University are even greater. The percentage of black faculty and administrators has dropped even further from 3.9 percent to 3.7 percent while the proportion of black service and maintenance workers has climbed from 53.3 percent to 53.9 percent.

The Living Wage Campaign today continues the long tradition of holding the University accountable for its lack of progress and challenging it to accept responsibility for its decisions. Paying a living wage to all direct employees would cost less than 0.096 percent of our annual budget. Nearly every other top-25 school in the country pays a living wage. Like so often in the University’s unfortunate history, governing decisions are behind the times.

In the interests of justice and the Charlottesville community, the University should address the needs of those who have been hit hardest by the recession, the dedicated women and men who clean our dorms, serve our food, and make our Grounds beautiful.

During the past two years, the campaign has organized rallies, marches and teach-ins with hundreds in attendance. The new administration, however, has done nothing but sidestep the issue. The Living Wage Campaign urges the president to end the tradition of turning a blind eye to injustice. The campaign has declared April 20 to be a Day of Action, culminating with a protest at 4 p.m. in front of the president’s office at Madison Hall.

As King once said, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that now we have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.” It is time for our university administration to respond to the decades-long struggle for a living wage and finally answer King’s question with a resounding “yes.”