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Why Students Are Hunger Striking in Virginia


By davidswanson - Posted on 18 February 2012

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."

UVA Living Wage Hunger Strike 1

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.

UVA Living Wage Hunger Strike 2

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.

UVA Living Wage Hunger Strike 4

Hunter Link read to the crowd on Saturday a letter from an unnamed worker who complained that President Sullivan talks about "a caring community" but -- asks the worker -- "what good are values if you don't live them?"

It's popular in U.S. politics these days to prefer words to actions, but the UVA living wage campaign is taking the opposite approach, pointing out the deceptions in Sullivan's claims.  "Contrary to President Sullivan's inexplicable claims," said hunger-striker David Flood, "real wages have declined in the past six years."  Objecting to non-monetary compensation as an alternative to wages, Flood remarked to loud applause: "You cannot pay the rent with a course at UVA.  You cannot buy medicine with a coupon good only at the UVA company store."  Before UVA workers can take classes, Flood said, they must be able to buy housing, food, and medicine.  They must be able to live in the community that they make possible.  I would add that they must be able to quit their second or third jobs if they are to have time for taking classes.

The living wage campaign is demanding a minumum wage for direct, contracted, and subcontracted employees of no less that $13, and that wages be adjusted each year to comply with the Economic Policy Institute's regionally sourced cost-of-living and inflation calculations.  This must be implemented without reducing other benefits, including healthcare, without under-staffing, without reducing hours worked, and without demanding increased productivity.  We started out demanding $8, and if the University had met that demand and indexed it to the cost of living, this campaign would have ended.  Professor Susan Fraiman, who has been part of the campaign from the start, remarked on Saturday that she very much hoped she was speaking at the last living wage rally that would be needed.  That will depend on the impact of the hunger strike.

UVA Living Wage Hunger Strike 3

The strikers have set up a permanent vigil between the Rotunda and the UVA Chapel.  The strikers are informed, articulate, dedicated, and deadly serious.  They've had physicals and will consume only liquids.  One of them, Hallie Clark, pointed out that the Black Student Alliance rallied for higher wages at UVA in 1969.  This has been a long struggle indeed. And the majority of the lowest paid workers at this slave-built campus are still black.  The honor code still forbids cheating on tests or treating students as if they would cheat on tests.  But it does not at the moment require presidents who have publicly articulated the moral demand for a living wage to actually pay one.

President Sullivan must work with UVA's Board of Visitors.  The board members are almost all from out of town.  Most students and workers have no contact with them.  They are not a part of the Charlottesville community.  Some of them are graduates of UVA's Darden Business School, which of course teaches the benefits of low pay for workers other than oneself and erases from consideration the question of whether a worker must hold a second job, or must use only emergency rooms for healthcare, or must leave his or her children unsupervised.  When I was a graduate student in philosophy at UVA, I took a course at Darden that was jointly listed as business and philosophy.  The course sought to apply ethics to the view of business regularly promoted at Darden, which felt a bit like applying a stick of lipstick to a large and fast-moving pig.

Here's a list of the members of the Board of Visitors along with their phone numbers. You can also click their names to email them. Or click HERE to email them all at once.  Hunter Link told me the campaign had been in touch with Mark Kington of the Finance Committee and found him less than supportive.  Here's what the various members do for their day jobs.  Other than the student member and the ex-officio member, if you can find a connection between any of the other members and education please let me know.  They seem to be almost all bankers, lawyers, CEOs, and . . . well, the sort of gang that ought to be the Board of Visitors for Darden Business School, not UVA; except they wouldn't have to visit as Darden has its own supply of these types.

President Sullivan is going to have to take the lead here.  It is her students refusing to eat, across the street from her house.  Her office phone is 434-924-3337.  During the next week, she and the board members need to hear from every single one of us who cares.  The Board of Visitors will be meeting next week.  There will be rallies every day this week, leading up to that meeting.  To get involved, go to livingwageatuva.org

UVA Living Wage Hunger Strike 5

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