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. Read the rest of this entry →