Twelve students at the University of Virginia on Saturday began a hunger strike for a living wage policy for university employees. They've taken this step after having exhausted just about every other possible approach over a period of 14 years. I was part of the campaign way back when it started. I can support the assertion made by hunger-striking student A.J. Chandra on Saturday, who said,
"We have not spent 14 years building up the case for a living wage. Rather, the campaign has made the case over and over again."
This is the latest in a long series of reports making the case.
Another striking student, David Flood, explained,
"We have researched long enough. We have campaigned long enough. We have protested long enough. The time for a living wage is now."
UVA was the first campus with a living wage campaign back in the late 1990s, but many campuses that started later finished sooner. UVA has seen partial successes. In 2000, the university raised wages to what was at the time a living wage. But those gains have been wiped out by inflation. Local businesses have voluntarily met the campaign's demands, and the City of Charllottesville has both implemented a living wage policy and called on UVA to do so.
When we started, no one dared to say the word "union," but by 2002 a union had formed. It lasted until 2008, and now a new organizing drive is underway.
Workers, however, still fear being fired for joining a union or for joining the living wage campaign. (Does anyone recall the Employee Free Choice Act from way back yonder in 2008? It would really come in handy.) With workers fearing retribution, students and faculty are the campaign's public face, and even some students (especially those with scholarships) and faculty are afraid to take on that role.
In 2006, UVA students tried a sit-in as a tactic to pressure the University's Board of Visitors. The students were arrested after four days, and wage policies unaltered. But now they are looking to the model of Georgetown University's successful hunger strike in 2005.
Since 2006, the campaign has been building support among workers, faculty, and the Charlottesville community whose economy is dominated by UVA and almost a quarter of whose population is below the federal poverty line. Here's a debate on the topic from 2011. A petition has been signed by 328 faculty members.
A rally was held on the steps of the Rotunda on Saturday to launch the hunger strike. Chandra told the gathered crowd that this 14-year campaign by an ever-changing cast of students who typically stay only 4 years has tried teach-ins, concerts, film showings, petitions, letter-writing, marches, seminars, reports, and community outreach of all sorts. Speaking privately, he told me that the university measures its success by its publications and many other quantities. "The well being of the lowest paid workers," he said, "has to be part of deciding whether this is a successful institution."
Without pressure for action, Chandra said, "the same passive acceptance of injustice that allowed blacks to be excluded from UVA until 1950 and women until 1970" will win out.
Hunter Link is another hunger-striking student, the only one of the 12 not currently enrolled. He graduated in December. He pointed out that UVA sends students abroad to do service projects with money it could have used to pay its own workers a living wage. Of course, it also builds giant sports arenas, raises its top salaries, and adds more buildings to its main campus all the time.
For most of the past 14 years, UVA had a president who gave no indication that I ever saw of caring in the least what happened to the people who scrubbed his toilets. Now, UVA has a new president, its first female president. Her name is Theresa Sullivan, and she has published books, including quite recently, advocating for a living wage. When it comes to actually paying one at UVA, where doing so would cost a fraction of a percent of the billions of dollars UVA is hoarding, Sullivan sings a different tune.