Labor Action

A group of University of Virginia students, faculty, and staff is expected to
demonstrate Friday, March 26th, at 1:00 p.m. on behalf of a living wage
for all UVa employees. The demonstration will take place outside the Rotunda
at the center of campus where the Board of Visitors, which sets the
university’s budget, will be meeting.

Demonstrators are planning to form a picket line on the Lawn in front of the
Rotunda and to deliver to the Board a petition signed by over 900 members of
the UVa community, including some staff-members who requested that their names
be blacked out because they feared reprisals from their supervisors. The
petition, which has also been signed by the representatives of two local labor
groups together representing over 1300 individuals, reads in part:
“We, the undersigned, protest the fact that many full-time staff at the
University of Virginia do not make enough to feed their families, are forced
to work second jobs, are eligible for food stamps, [and] earn salaries well
below the poverty line for a family of four. . . . To begin to remedy these
conditions, we support the living wage campaign sponsored by the Labor Action
Group (LAG). We demand that the University of Virginia pay its employees a
minimum of $8 an hour, and we express our firm belief that all [UVa] staff
[should be able] to be heard.”

In April the city of Charlottesville is expected to raise its full-time, and
possibly part-time, employees’ wages to above $8 per hour. Supporters of the
living wage campaign at UVa (which is the area’s largest low-wage employer)
hope that this move will have some impact on the university. Many professors
and students say they are becoming increasingly ashamed to work and study at
UVa because of the standard of living endured by hundreds of the employees who
keep the place running.

Friday’s demonstration will be one in what has been a series of lobbying
efforts sponsored by UVa’s Labor Action Group over the past year-and-a-half.
Awareness of this issue at UVa is increasing. A group of UVa drama students
will be putting on two performances of Clifford Odets’ 1935 play “Waiting for
Lefty” in April for the purpose of dramatizing the need for a living wage.

The living wage campaign as a national phenomenon has grown rapidly. At least
17 cities have taken a step that Charlottesville has not yet planned, namely
passing an explicit living wage ordinance raising the minimum wage for anyone
employed directly or indirectly by the city to a level that will keep a
full-time worker’s family of four out of poverty, and stipulating that this
wage will be adjusted for inflation annually.

The AFL-CIO, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now
(ACORN), and the New Party, as well as many smaller groups, have devoted
their resources to the living wage campaign. The efforts of the Labor Action
Group at UVa are supported by many local groups, including the Monticello Area
Community Action Agency and the Charlottesville NAACP.

This living wage movement is happening at a time when the television news
tirelessly informs us of our “healthy economy.” It is happening because,
while the rich have gotten richer over the past decades, the poor have gotten
poorer. Unemployment is at a record low, but so is the income of the
least-well-off. The federal minimum wage is 26 percent lower now than it was
in 1980 (after adjusting for inflation). It is 30 percent lower than in 1968,
although the economy is 50 percent more productive. The gaps between the
wealthiest and the average, and between the average and the poorest, incomes
in the U.S. have grown dramatically. We have recently been throwing people
off welfare, and to many it seems a good idea to pay them decent wages for
their labor.

As of 1997, 7.3 million families in the U.S. were officially poor. In 66
percent of these families at least one person had at least one job. At $5.15
per hour (the federal minimum wage) a person working full-time for fifty weeks
earns $10,300, which is below the national poverty line for a family of two
and nearly 40 percent below the poverty line for a family of four ($16,450).
In other words, we, the citizens of the world’s richest country, are willing
to see some of us work hard full-time and earn only 60% of the pay that we
have ourselves described as minimally sufficient.

The starting salary for UVa housekeeping jobs is $13,250 per year ($6.37 per
hour). Those hired through the contractor Servicemaster are paid $12,480 per
year ($6.00 per hour). These workers and many others at UVa live in poverty.
They are obliged to take second and third jobs and/or to rely on food stamps
to survive. In contrast, UVa’s president takes home over $400,000 per year
including benefits and pay from outside boards. This is well over thirty
times the salary of some of his employees. And faculty salaries have
increased more than twice as fast as staff’s over the past fifteen years.
UVa’s President John Casteen and Chief Financial Officer Leonard Sandridge
have each admitted that employees’ salaries are insufficient. They have not
proposed any steps to remedy the situation.

The university has in recent years been spending enormous sums of money on
expansions to the law school and the business school, a new bookstore and
parking garage, new tennis courts, repair of balconies on the lawn, a
remodeling of Newcomb Hall, the construction of an office park near the
airport, a bail out of the QualChoice health plan, and the expansion of the
football stadium (this alone cost $75 million), with plans to build a new
basketball stadium at a cost of over $75 million more. The Board of Visitors
last year raised its fundraising campaign goal from $750 million to $1
billion. According to a Richmond Times Dispatch article May 3, 1998, UVa,
Virginia Tech, and Virginia Commonwealth University have seen their private
funds quadruple from their levels a decade ago, with UVa in the lead holding
private reserves in excess of $1.7 billion.

According to Thomas Gausvik, UVa’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Scott
Stadium, the QualChoice bailout, the North Fork Research Park, and faculty
raises have all been covered by “private funds or clinical reserves,” not
state funds. Gausvik also states that UVa has been given authority from the
state to raise faculty salaries (with private funds), but has not been given
authority to raise salaries for “classified employees.” In other words, if
this is true, then Richmond is not giving UVa money for anything but is
forbidding UVa from spending its own money on certain things.

But what is our state government’s interest in mandating poverty? UVa’s
raising of faculty salaries has not legally compelled other colleges to raise
theirs, and no one has suggested that raising staff salaries at UVa would
compel all state schools to raise staff salaries. And why should Richmond
permit city government employees to escape poverty (as is expected to soon
occur in Charlottesville) and deny the same privilege to employees of one of
the country’s top universities at a time when it is rolling in private funds?

Many economists suggest that it is good for business to pay employees enough
so that they can purchase some small amount of goods and services. So the
interests of the economy are probably not motivating this government-imposed
poverty.

And those who are forced to get by without a living wage in some cases receive
token assistance from food stamps, Medicaid, and earned income tax credits,
all of which comes from the same government that is reportedly denying UVa
permission to pay people enough so that they will not require these services.

The Labor Action Group at UVa was formed in the summer of 1997, following a
“Teach-In with the Labor Movement” held there in February of that year. Many
such rallies were held at schools around the country beginning in 1996 in an
effort to interest academics in popular concerns. In April of 1998, LAG
announced its campaign for an $8 minimum wage. (Students can be seen around
campus wearing orange and blue “$8” buttons. Some employees at UVa Hospital
have been forbidden to wear these buttons with their uniforms although other
[non-political] buttons reportedly have been permitted.)

LAG members hope and expect that raising the minimum wage to $8 will lead to
proportionate raises for those already earning over that amount. Ultimately
LAG hopes to alter employer-employee relations at UVa so that employees become
better able to achieve their goals in the future.

Early responses from university officials to the $8 campaign concentrated on
claiming that UVa bases its rates of pay on the rates currently paid by other
employers. One problem with this is that, as the largest employer around, UVa
more than anyone else sets the current standards. Another is that when you
look closely at UVa’s practices of out-sourcing and employing more and more
temporary and part-time workers, it becomes clear that all “paying the market
rate” means is paying enough to attract employees. “The university appears to
be an employer of choice in this region,” Gausvik wrote in the Daily Progress
August 30, 1998, by which he can only have meant that UVa has employees. But
that fact has never been in dispute. The extremely high turnover rates in
some departments suggest less than overwhelming satisfaction on the part of
the workers who come and go. And those who stay in many cases report that
they do so only for lack of something better.

In any case, Gausvik has written in a memo that UVa’s pay rates are below
those of other employers in the region.

In the same article quoted above Gausvik argued that UVa’s employees didn’t
have it so bad, and also that “Unfortunately, the university does not have the
authority to change the pay scale of the classified pay plan without authority
from the state.” If this is “unfortunate,” then everything must not be well.
This passing of the buck to Richmond has in recent months been the theme
sounded by university officials. But, as Gausvik wrote, the state sets its
pay scales according to the going market rates. So, even if UVa does not
appeal to “the market,” Richmond can. And UVa appeals to the authority of
Richmond.

But many employees at UVa are hired by private contractors who set their own
pay rates, and UVa has the authority to make these contracts. If the
university wants its employees to be paid a living wage, it can begin by
contracting only with employers who pay one. Currently this is not UVa
policy.

LAG (which can be contacted at labor@virginia.edu) has encouraged all
interested people to turn out for the demonstration on Friday, but is
expecting mainly students because of the mid-day timing and because many
workers are afraid to speak out. Although President Casteen and others have
stated that workers are allowed to assemble and to protest, the university has
also spread misinformation seemingly aimed at preventing such actions.

For example, in the student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, February 4, 1999,
the Board of Visitors Secretary Alexander Gilliam was quoted as saying that
the idea of faculty representation on the Board of Visitors “came close to
violating Virginia’s strict rules about state employees not belonging to a
union.” There are no such rules, and many state employees currently are
members of unions.

By applying public pressure to the Board of Visitors, LAG hopes to determine
whether the passing of the buck to Richmond is similar misinformation, as well
as to encourage UVa to take those steps that it indisputably can take, such as
contracting out work only to employers who pay a living wage, raising wages
within the existing pay scale (which specifies pay ranges for various
positions), ceasing to employ people in multiple part-time jobs or part-time
jobs of 39 hours per week so as to avoid giving benefits, and lobbying
Richmond to raise wages or pass a living wage statute.

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