I think we can tentatively draw a few possible, and all of them encouraging, conclusions from the fact that the University of Virginia has announced a $15 per hour minimum wage for its direct employees.
One is this: actions you take can bear fruit later. When many of us demanded an $8 living wage back in the 1990s, the University dragged its feet. Local governments and businesses did move to $8/hour. And distant governments and other universities began adopting living wage standards. Activist groups promoting living wage laws elsewhere drew on the example of some of our tactics at UVA, even though we hadn’t yet succeeded at UVA.
Over the decades, the living wage campaign at UVA has been conducted by a group of students that has kept changing, as they have the troublesome habit of graduating and moving on. This campaign has had high points and low, but it’s been creative and daring and persistent enough — staging sit-ins and hunger strikes, shutting down buildings, interrupting meetings, educating the public, and mobilizing persuasive people and groups — that the idea that UVA needs a living wage has remained present in the air of Charlottesville.
There have been victories, too. First at $8, then higher. They just haven’t been enough. The latest one, as well, is not yet enough, though there is reason to believe it might turn out to be.
The idea that demanding over and over again for decades something that could easily be done in a matter of hours by someone with a basic sense of decency, that such an absurd effort can fail and fail and fail and then succeed ought to give people some encouragement to demand other changes in the world.
This first lesson may be encouraging, for example, to advocates of removing war statues in Charlottesville. Events here in 2017 led to the removal of Confederate statues in other places, and helped move the national culture in that direction. Perhaps someday, even in Charlottesville, the statues will come down.
A second lesson may be this. The living wage campaign has had a success at a moment when there was an active visible living wage campaign at UVA, and there was also a much larger than before living wage campaign on the national stage.
Just as the demand to take down statues drew on the Black Lives Matter movement that was much larger than Charlottesville, this latest wage policy at UVA has drawn on the Fight For $15 movement. It’s good that these movements are widespread, and it’s good that local changes can result.
A third and related lesson is that politicians do not always lie. I hesitate to call UVA’s new president a politician for fear he might take it as an insult. That fact is indicative of the regard in which most people hold most politicians in the United States today. UVA’s new president, Jim Ryan, came in talking about morality and the public interest and all sorts of sweet-smelling platitudes. I even had a mutual friend of his and mine assure me he was really a great guy.
But his predecessor had claimed to be quite the humanitarian while insisting on poverty wages. Ryan’s promises were vague enough to avoid meaning anything. If you have, like I have, lived through Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump and not grown a wee bit skeptical, I don’t know what to say except that you must be so sick of all the “winning” since Trump took over that you don’t need any cheering up from me.
While I was still at UVA, I attended a living wage conference at Yale, where there has been a living wage campaign ever since. Ryan came to UVA from Yale.
A fourth lesson, and this is a good thing, is that eternal vigilance will be needed from now until, well, eternity. The devil is in a couple of key details.
First, the new policy does not explicitly index the new wage to increase with the cost of living. Almost all minimum wage and living wage efforts everywhere are attempts to restore lost value, even though they are always described as demands for minimum wage “increases.” If there is some reason not to make the wage level permanent (other than that the living wage activists have demanded $16.84, not $15.00), it is not provided in UVA’s webpage on the subject, which merely says: “The method for ongoing adjustments to UVA’s base wage is still being determined.” I recommend contacting UVA and helping them determine it.
By the way, there is a striking similarity between UVA’s new webpage on its actual policy, and the sort of webpage on a proposed living wage policy for UVA that has been promoted for decades and not updated in years.
Second, the new policy does not yet cover the 40% of UVA employees who work for private companies on university contracts. For decades now, the University has claimed to be helpless because the state forbids it to put living wage standards in its contracts. For decades now, many of us have believed that the University was lying through its teeth, that it could choose only to hire companies with their own living wage standards if it merely wanted to. I’ve always supposed that if an actually decent person were ever in charge at UVA, he or she would figure this out in an afternoon. UVA’s webpage now says: “We will work with our major contractors to negotiate appropriate changes to our current agreements that will achieve the University’s objective.”
On behalf of the many thousands of people who’ve recommended that UVA do just that for many years, let me just say, we didn’t really mind holding the concerts or wearing the shirts or writing the articles or interviewing the employees or doing the math or the legal research or interrupting meetings held by people who gave no indication of giving the slightest damn what we said. It was enjoyable. But many of us will mind if you turn out to still be jerking us around. And I’m willing to bet many current students and parents and even a handful of unpaid sports stars and possibly a gazillionaire donor or two are also going to mind.
You’ve got to mean it this time. You’ve got to make it a lesson in the possibility of setting aside excuses no matter how long they’ve been used. And if you do mean it, I’ll happily lead the applause.