University of Virginia Students Starve Themselves In Campaign For Living Wage

University of Virginia living wageJonathan Bryan, a senior at the University of Virginia, stopped eating on Feb. 17. Three days later, he got strep throat. The doctors drew blood, and gave him antibiotics, but he wouldn't take a bite. By the 10th day, he "could barely stand," he says, and the doctor said he had to eat "to function."

But at least a dozen or so students are still refusing food, as the university hunger strike entered its 13th day on Wednesday. Bryan, who is also the vice president of the campus chapter of the NAACP, was about to race to a rally when he spoke to AOL Jobs by phone.

"The university is in a state of protest," he says. The school's Living Wage campaign is demanding the university increase the minimum wage of their employees and contractors to $13 an hour, or $27,000 a year for a 40-hour workweek.

The university pays its employees a minimum of $10.65 an hour, or $22,200 a year, and claims it can't afford to raise it higher, and has no control over the wages of private contractors. The Living Wage campaign estimates that there are hundreds of them; Aramark, for example, which provides the university's dining services, is the 17th largest employer in university's home base of Charlottesville, according to the Virginia Employment Commission. They may be paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, or $15,100 a year. But the university has never audited their contracted vendors, so it's unclear how much they're paid, or how many there are at all.

'The Plantation'

"I know first-hand what the economic struggle is like for many of these underpaid workers," says Joseph Williams, a junior safety on the university's football team, who reports struggling with poverty as a child and moving over 30 times, including stints in homeless shelters, church basements and the homes of friends. He claims that the level of inequality on campus harks to the slave era of Thomas Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia. Williams quotes one anonymous employee as referring to the university grounds as "the plantation."

The majority of University of Virginia's students come from middle- and upper-middle-class backgrounds, says Bryan. But Charlottesville has a poverty rate of 27 percent, according to the 2010 census, which is almost three times the Virginia average. At the same time, the city has a lower unemployment rate than the rest of the state and the country.

Williams says university employees are "systematically discriminated against and exploited," while the school spends millions of dollars on "superfluous additions," like flower beds and a domed practice area for the football team.

The university's academic division made over $2 billion in revenue in the fiscal year that ended in June 2011, an increase of 20 percent from the year before. Sixty-three percent of that money was spent on compensation.

Significant Progress

In a statement to the university's Board of Visitors, university president Teresa Sullivan said that in her 18 months in the post she had increased the minimum hiring rate from $10.14 to $10.65 an hour, and had reduced the number of employees receiving this minimum rate from 61 to 26 out of the 8,500 salaried staff and faculty in the Academic Division.

Sullivan also told the student body via email that the university did not have the power to dictate a living wage requirement for private contractors, as stated in a 2006 opinion from Virginia's then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who is now the state's governor and chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

The Living Wage campaign's lawyer says that the university is not bound by this opinion, and Bryan points out that many other public bodies in Virginia ensure within their contracts that employees are paid a living wage, including the City of Charlottesville itself. Its city council set its living wage at $8 in 2000, and indexed it to inflation. This figure is significantly below the current base minimum wage paid to University of Virginia non-contract employees.

Sullivan further added that there is no consensus over what a living wage is. A petition submitted to university administrators on Feb. 8, which included 8½ pages of faculty signatures, requested an increase to $11.44 an hour, $1.16 less than the amount requested by student campaigners.

If the protest was about a specific dollar amount, Sullivan said, "I would be applauded for the significant progress we made in just one year...."

Bryan says the discrepancy between the two numbers proposed by faculty and student campaigners comes down to "a difference in strategy."

Members of the Living Wage campaign met with administrators on Monday, after 10 days of hunger striking, and a protest on Sullivan's front lawn. The meeting was "reasonably cordial," according to English professor and faculty campaigner Susan Fraiman, and administrators were sympathetic to their cause, but there was "no good indication," she said, that they were going to do anything about it.

Administrators continue to cite budgetary constraints, and have emphasized that merit-based pay increases for their top professors are a priority. "If you want to talk about being competitive and remaining the best in the country," advises Bryan, administrators should look at another statistic: 22 out of the top 25 ranked universities in the U.S., he says, including all of the Ivy League, provide a living wage to their employees.

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