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Hunger-Striking Students Finally See Some Progress for University of Virginia Workers

A living-wage campaign has been pressing the university's overpaid administrators to treat its workers better for the past 14 years.
 
 
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A living-wage campaign at the University of Virginia has been pressing the university's six-figure-salary administrators to treat its workers better for the past 14 years, sometimes winning higher wages, but always watching them be wiped out by the soaring cost of living in Charlottesville. The workers, lacking a union, and witnessing retaliation against some who have spoken out, have been reluctant to take the lead in the fight, but students have stepped up to the task.

From February 18 to March 1, UVA students -- a dozen at first, but growing to a group of 20 -- refused to eat. Some lasted the entire 12 days with no food. Others broke their fast for medical reasons. They all suffered pain and exhaustion. Their joints hurt. Their legs got weak. They had difficulty climbing stairs. They found it harder to carry books, and harder to concentrate. They wore lots of layers despite the spring-like weather, and still felt cold. But they said they found strength and warmth in the growing support for the cause that had led them to launch a hunger strike.

"It's hard not to eat," said Marguerite Beattie, a fourth-year psychology major, "but imagining what the workers are going through makes it easier." "I see workers every day," she said. "They clean my dorm, the toilets, the showers, every day. Once when we were going on break, I asked one woman whether she had any vacation plans. She said she'd only been on vacation one time in her entire life."

UVA has long hidden its most poorly compensated workers on the books of private contractors and refused to say how many of them there are or what they are paid. The living-wage campaign has just won a commitment from the university to audit its contractors and report on the number of employees and their pay. The campaign has also won assistance from both the AFL-CIO and the SEIU, one of the latter's locals having recently committed to organizing UVA contract employees. The student-led campaign is gearing up for greater activism and union organizing this spring, but what achieved these successes and what has led the students (and alumni like me, who were part of the campaign 14 years ago) to say that an all-time high point has been reached in UVA activism is the use of creative nonviolence -- the hunger strike the students resorted to this month after countless other tactics had failed to yield fruit.

Among those who came and spoke at the daily rallies were national figures like Jill Stein, Green Party presidential nominee, and representatives of the two labor organizations suddenly inspired to support workers at UVA. Joseph Williams, one of the hunger strikers, is a varsity football player who was willing to risk his position on the team. That sacrifice attracted other students and national media to the cause.

Working In Jefferson's Sweatshop 

Teresa Sullivan became UVA's first female president in 2010. Sullivan is a labor sociologist who has coauthored a text book that states, "Being paid a living wage for one's work is a necessary condition for self-actualization....The provision of wages adequate to meet basic needs is a fundamental requirement before work can be experienced as rewarding and meaningful." But for the past two years Sullivan has done no more to meet the demands of the living-wage campaign than her predecessor.

The reason many workers at UVA don't take vacations (or eat in restaurants or go to movie theaters) is that, even though they work full time, what they are paid won't cover their ordinary bills. Many people employed by the university, whether directly or through contractors, take on second jobs. Some have third jobs. Some work second jobs at UVA for lower hourly pay than at their first job -- a practice that would seem to violate the legal requirement of time-and-a-half for overtime, except that the two jobs are technically for different employers, one being the university and the other one of its contractors. These long hours are so poorly compensated that many depend on family members and government benefits just to pay for housing, food, clothing, and transportation. There are no extras beyond those necessities.

 
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