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Students lead living wage protest at University of Virginia amid climate of intimidation

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“Supervisors [of contract employees] reportedly told people, ‘If you go organize or go to a meeting, you’ll be fired,'” said Susan Fraiman, a professor at the University of Virginia and a long-time activist for living wages for staff and contract workers on campus. In a right-to-work state like Virginia, that might not be illegal — but, according to an advisory opinion issued to UVA in 2006 by then-Attorney General (now Governor) Bob McDonnell (R), taking into account the wages your contractors are paying the employees that work on campus when awarding contracts might be.

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David Flood, one of the student organizers behind the Living Wage at UVA campaign, said the university “acknowledged [in private meetings] that the opinion isn’t legally binding nor is it intended to be,” and Fraiman said, “we have it on good authority from the law faculty that the Attorney General’s opinion is advisory only and not legally binding” on the university. Nonetheless, the university appears to be determined to rely on it to explain why they don’t plan to force contractors to pay their employees even the same wages as university staff (which start at $10.65 an hour), let alone the $13 per hour the campaign is demanding for employees and contractors alike.

Emily Filler, who runs the campaign’s media outreach, said, “Almost everything they cite is economic.” In fact, she added, “The president and the chief financial officer [of the university] during the most recent action issued statements pleading a lack of available funds” to pay higher wages to the lowest-wage employees.

That most recent action was a 13-day hunger strike among 26 students, including UVA football player Joseph Williams — whose participation helped organizers garner more media attention for the living wage issue than almost any time in recent memory.

But Fraiman, who has been part of the struggle to force the university to pay a living wage for 14 years, thinks that’s far from all that makes this year different. “These students are using the history of this and other movements to plan strategy, they’re reaching out to workers, they’re reaching out to other groups of students who have similar issues… It’s much more diverse racially and in every other way than in the past,” she said. “They are very serious about participatory democracy,” she added, “and they work by consensus.”

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Flood said, “A hunger strike was an option of last resort,” to which the group agreed after negotiations with the university and past actions — including a 2006 sit-in, petitions, rallies, teach-ins and even getting the city of Charlottesville to pass a living wage resolution for its own employees and contractors — failed. “We wanted something that, with every day, would increase pressure on the university,” Filler said.

The university responded a mere 10 minutes before the organization’s deadline for the school to take substantive actions. But it wasn’t what they’d hoped: President Teresa Sullivan instead sent a university-wide email claiming that the university already paid employees more than $20 an hour, without explicitly noting that she’d arrived on that figure by including “hourly benefits,” some of which employees don’t or can’t use and which is far from standard when discussing wages. Sullivan also failed to address the problems identified by the students with the pay of contract employees, which is widely known to be lower than for staff.

Part of the problem, Filler, Flood and Fraiman said, is the lack of oversight the university exercises over its contractors of their employees means they don’t really know basic information about the numbers of or wages paid to the workers. And although each contract states that the contractors will submit information about the size and salaries of their employees to the university, Filler notes that the university “refuses to do any auditing, and they say they don’t have the authority to do so.”

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Fraiman said, “They really seem not to know how many contract workers there are or what they get paid.” She said “There are probably thousands of contract workers overall, but it’s really anyone’s guess.” The university uses contract employees in almost all its food service positions, for cleaning, for groundskeeping and for construction “and many contractors are refugees,” Filler noted.

More ominously yet, during the last meeting the activists had with the administration, university Executive Vice President and COO Michael Strine told students that the pressure wasn’t simply coming from politicians in Richmond. “Strine in particular said he’d gotten calls from some legislators in Richmond, corporate donors [to the university] and the [governor-appointed] Board of Visitors encouraging them to respond harshly in the media against us,” Flood said.

The calls from Richmond, the Board and corporate donors aren’t the only thing chilling participation on campus. “Even among the faculty,” Fraiman said, “I almost get the sense that their reluctance [to participate] isn’t so much ideological but that even faculty feel a little be nervous about possible retaliation.” She added, “If even tenured faculty feel that, these low-wage workers with no job security whatsoever have to be worried.” She termed Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s thus-far unsuccessful efforts to gain access to former professor Michael Mann’s emails in an effort to debunk his climate change research “really chilling.”

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But the students aren’t deterred. And while they are seeking younger members to keep their momentum going even after the older ones graduate, they’ve got more immediate plans on the horizon. “We’ve going to escalate. We’re going to hold their feet to the fire on what they promised and what they know they should promise,” said Flood.

[Image courtesy of The Living Wage Campaign at UVA]

[Ed. note: This article was edited after publication.]

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