Student members of the Living Wage Campaign at the University of Virginia, including a West Chester University alumnus, organized a protest starting Feb. 18 that lasted 13 days and included 26 people on hunger strike and over one hundred people fasting for one day in recognition.
Their efforts were to insist that the university raise the unjustly low wages of its employees so that they could pursue a better quality of life. The strike, although student-led, also included university faculty, and workers, and local residents. Tim Bruno, a graduate student at UVA, who received his Bachelor’s degree in English from West Chester University in 2009, was a vocal and driving force behind the campaign. Bruno fasted for 11 days and lost a total of 16 pounds.
“The only thing that gets you through it is a self-sacrifice to your own conscience. It was feeling right that kept me going,” He said.
Because UVA is the largest employer in the region, it has been brought to the attention of students that this is a wide scale issue. The Living Wage Campaign has been pressing for economic justice on UVA’s campus for the past 14 years. Workers employed directly by the University can make as little as $10.65/hour, but contract workers-who are technically working for Aramark, for example – can make as little as $7.25/hour.
Using data from the Economic Policy Institute, they have determined that a living wage, which includes food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, and transportation, for Charlottesville, VA is $13/hour plus benefits. They therefore demanded a pay raise of a minimum of $13/hour for both direct and contract employees without any reduction to current benefits. Additionally, they have specified that the $13/hour minimum wage must be indexed to inflation so that if the cost of living increases and the living wage goes up, their pay will reflect the change.
Although President Teresa Sullivan’s administration refused to meet their demands after two negotiations, the campaign achieved a number of important strategic victories. Bruno said in retrospect, “the administration was forced to explicitly acknowledge our campaign and our demands for the first time in our 14 year history. Students at UVA have never been so cognizant of, engaged with, or educated on the low-wage crisis on campus.”
The campaign encountered some difficulty in rallying support from the university workers.
Bruno said, “It’s hard to get workers to speak out in support because the university cultivates a climate of fear: workers are harassed and investigated if their supervisors suspect they’ve attended our rallies or otherwise support us. Aramark, the dining service that also operates at WCU, is the largest contractor on-campus and one of the worst offenders in this case.”
Many of the students involved have personal relationships with the workers, including dining hall and custodial staff, and were concerned about the climate of fear their employers have created concerning the protest.
“When our hunger strike began, Aramark told its employees that they were forbidden to interact with us in any fashion–employees weren’t allowed to do things as innocent as waving at us as they walked by,” Bruno said. “That’s the kind of climate of fear that UVA and its contractors like Aramark have created. Employees are scared to support us because they know that it could cost them their jobs.”
This cause can be relevant to WCU’s worker wage situation, and Bruno urges all students to be aware of their university’s treatment of staff. He said, “UVA and WCU obviously have very different economic situations, but what remains true for both public universities is the crippling effect that enforced educational austerity measures have on real people, students and workers both.”
The strike got the attention of several national media outlets, including MSNBC, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post,
The Nation, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo! Sports, The Chicago Tribune, Ms Magazine, Ebony, DC’s NPR affiliate, RT, Democracy Now! and several others.
The actual camping took place in front of the Rotunda, a building at the center of grounds, which was immediately across the street from the University President’s office.
As for taking action on other campuses, Bruno urges students to pressure for political support. “If our university communities are going to educate students and enable employees to provide a basic living for their families, then they need robust, meaningful support from state governments; we need legislators who care about education and economic justice, not their own ideological priorities,” he said.
Bruno said his personal and academic experiences at WCUgot him raising his consciousness of such issues. He said, “I got involved because I care about social and economic justice. We live in a society capable of treating all of its members well, but we don’t. I couldn’t simply go along quietly with that kind of injustice.”
More information on the Living Wage Campaign can be found at http://www.livingwageatuva.org/ and http://www.livingwageatuva.org/category/worker-testimony/.
Leah Skye is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies, with a minor in journalism. She can be reached at LS685444@wcupa.edu.