Civil Rights


Hunger-Striking Students Finally See Some Progress for University of Virginia Workers

Tag: Civil Rights
AlterNet / By David Swanson   A living-wage campaign has been pressing the university's overpaid administrators to treat its workers better for the past 14 years. March 8, 2012  |    

A living-wage campaign at the University of Virginia has been pressing the university's six-figure-salary administrators to treat its workers better for the past 14 years, sometimes winning higher wages, but always watching them be wiped out by the soaring cost of living in Charlottesville. The workers, lacking a union, and witnessing retaliation against some who have spoken out, have been reluctant to take the lead in the fight, but students have stepped up to the task.

From February 18 to March 1, UVA students -- a dozen at first, but growing to a group of 20 -- refused to eat. Some lasted the entire 12 days with no food. Others broke their fast for medical reasons. They all suffered pain and exhaustion. Their joints hurt. Their legs got weak. They had difficulty climbing stairs. They found it harder to carry books, and harder to concentrate. They wore lots of layers despite the spring-like weather, and still felt cold. But they said they found strength and warmth in the growing support for the cause that had led them to launch a hunger strike.

"It's hard not to eat," said Marguerite Beattie, a fourth-year psychology major, "but imagining what the workers are going through makes it easier." "I see workers every day," she said. "They clean my dorm, the toilets, the showers, every day. Once when we were going on break, I asked one woman whether she had any vacation plans. She said she'd only been on vacation one time in her entire life."

UVA has long hidden its most poorly compensated workers on the books of private contractors and refused to say how many of them there are or what they are paid. The living-wage campaign has just won a commitment from the university to audit its contractors and report on the number of employees and their pay. The campaign has also won assistance from both the AFL-CIO and the SEIU, one of the latter's locals having recently committed to organizing UVA contract employees. The student-led campaign is gearing up for greater activism and union organizing this spring, but what achieved these successes and what has led the students (and alumni like me, who were part of the campaign 14 years ago) to say that an all-time high point has been reached in UVA activism is the use of creative nonviolence -- the hunger strike the students resorted to this month after countless other tactics had failed to yield fruit.

Among those who came and spoke at the daily rallies were national figures like Jill Stein, Green Party presidential nominee, and representatives of the two labor organizations suddenly inspired to support workers at UVA. Joseph Williams, one of the hunger strikers, is a varsity football player who was willing to risk his position on the team. That sacrifice attracted other students and national media to the cause.

Working In Jefferson's Sweatshop

Teresa Sullivan became UVA's first female president in 2010. Sullivan is a labor sociologist who has coauthored a text book that states, "Being paid a living wage for one's work is a necessary condition for self-actualization....The provision of wages adequate to meet basic needs is a fundamental requirement before work can be experienced as rewarding and meaningful." But for the past two years Sullivan has done no more to meet the demands of the living-wage campaign than her predecessor.

The reason many workers at UVA don't take vacations (or eat in restaurants or go to movie theaters) is that, even though they work full time, what they are paid won't cover their ordinary bills. Many people employed by the university, whether directly or through contractors, take on second jobs. Some have third jobs. Some work second jobs at UVA for lower hourly pay than at their first job -- a practice that would seem to violate the legal requirement of time-and-a-half for overtime, except that the two jobs are technically for different employers, one being the university and the other one of its contractors. These long hours are so poorly compensated that many depend on family members and government benefits just to pay for housing, food, clothing, and transportation. There are no extras beyond those necessities.

Living-wage advocates note that just about everyone would prefer to be paid decently for the work they do than to work without fair compensation and be caught in a safety net that might better serve the unemployed. In debates over living-wage proposals, it is always the think tanks serving the hotel and restaurant lobby, such as the Employment Policies Institute, that advocate for earned income tax credits and other mechanisms to transfer the burden of worker pay from large employers to the public at large.

Many of the lowest paid workers at UVA are contract employees. They work for one of the companies the university hires to cook food, cut grass, clean bathrooms, answer phones, etc. -- companies such as Aramark, Turners Cleaning Service, and Zaatar Services/Service Master Cleaning. "Bob," a contract employee working in the dining hall told the living wage campaign that he has worked 45 hours a week for the past 10 years, but was only able to afford a babysitter for his two small children because he had taken on the stress of another 25 hours per week at a second job.

Tom, a direct employee of the university (all but one of these employees’ names have been changed to protect their identities) is a landscaper for the university's grounds. Tom said he could not think of anyone in his department who didn't have a second job, and many had a third, while most still clamored for all the overtime they could get on their first job. The stress, he said, was damaging physically and mentally.

"The administration would be better off paying a living wage," Tom said, "so that people were not sick all the time, stressed all the time, fighting with their wife all the time. When you can't pay your bills, it's always on your mind." Tom said he witnesses alcoholism on a regular basis, as well as cases of domestic violence during the years that he has worked for UVA.

Another landscaping worker, Mike Henrietta (his real name), said it's not uncommon for colleagues who hunt to share a deer, or for those who raise chickens to share a chicken, with those UVA employees who are in worse straits than themselves. Tom agreed, saying, "A buck will put 80 pounds of meat in your freezer, and that can make a big difference. A lot of guys will do it, in and out of [hunting] season."

Tom also pointed to a darker side of the desperation among employees at what is often called Mr. Jefferson's University. "I talked to one of the supervisors," he said. "He had a rope for a belt, and I asked him why. He said that he'd left his belt and a pair of pants on a chair for a couple of hours and somebody in our department had stolen them." Gone along with the pair of pants and belt, Tom said, is just about anything that's left lying loose, including weed-eaters and blowers. "When you're desperate, you get sticky fingers."

Martha works as an administrative assistant for a contractor named Morrison Management Specialists at the UVA Hospital. Her 40-hour job was cut back to 36 hours a couple of years ago, leaving her an annual salary of under $27,000. She manages to pay the rent by sharing a four-bedroom apartment with three other people. Many of her colleagues, she said, make significantly less than she does and have children to support. What they complain for want of most, she said, are shoes, pants, books, and clothes for their children for school.

Jane, another contract worker who has been in touch with the living wage campaign is paid $7.50 an hour. That's $300 a week, or $15,600 per year. That's not “starting pay” that one might expect to quickly increase; she's already been working there for years. She has no health benefits and must pay for her own uniform and parking. Even the managers in the company she works for are paid only $9.50/hr.

Working with research by the Economic Policy Institute (not to be confused with the aforementioned Employment Policies Institute), UVA's living wage campaign has calculated that a living wage in Charlottesville, Virginia, is $13 per hour plus health coverage. That wage, according to EPI, should allow two full-time working adults with two children to pay for just their necessities and nothing more. A single-income household, of course, is left with a greater struggle. Some employees of the University of Virginia, hired through contracting companies, are now paid 58 percent of what they need, or rather of what they would need if they were provided health coverage, which they are not.

UVA has an endowment of over $5 billion and has built many new buildings, including sports facilities, in recent years. One of its vice presidents was paid $650,000 in 2011, one of its professors $561,100, another $518,900, and its new president, Teresa Sullivan, $485,000. David Flood, a graduate student in anthropology and one of the hunger strikers, said that the most generous estimate of what it would cost the university to bring all workers up to a living wage would be less than 1 percent of UVA's annual budget. (The figure must be guessed at until the university does that audit.)

Charlottesville has just over 40,000 inhabitants, and its largest employer, the university, employs 20,000 people, some commuting from outside the city limits, many of them at poverty wages. Just over 27 percent of Charlottesvillians live below the federal poverty line. The city government has a living wage policy in place and has asked the university to match it. Some UVA employees rely on public housing, social services, and food stamps. One city council member has complained that "the city is subsidizing UVA's low rates of pay with social safety nets."

Neighborhoods in Charlottesville are largely segregated by wealth and race, and struggling workers tend not to approach students or tourists with their concerns. Workers fear retaliation if they speak out. In December 1999, a UVA hospital cafeteria cashier named Richelle Burress was suspended for wearing a living wage button on her uniform. Tom said he'd seen workers who had spoken out marginalized and denied any promotion. Everyone asks him how the campaign is going, he says, but none of them will dare join it. Martha agreed, saying, "In a right-to-work state an employer doesn't really need a reason to fire you, and we know that." Of course, this can also be true in a non-right-to-work state if a union contract does not prevent it.

In April 2011, the university released a statement saying, "Faculty and staff who, in good faith, engage in constitutionally protected freedom of expression should do so without fear of reprisal." But many are not convinced. Not only has the university administration been turning down requests for comment from media outlets, according to the living wage campaign's press contact Emily Filler, but it recently instructed workers not to speak with the media. David Flood, the hunger-striking student, denounced such tactics as illegal, violating First Amendment rights and rights against workplace retaliation. "Employees have been told not to engage with us," he said.

Taking Action

Flood and his fellow "wagers," as they call themselves, have organized, educated, rallied, staged sit-ins, won the support of over 300 faculty members, recruited the help of numerous organizations on campus and off, and published and annually updated a 75-page report called "Keeping Our Promises," which makes a historical, moral, and legal argument for a living wage. Some 150 localities, and 22 of the 25 top-ranked universities in the country have living wage policies, and a number of studies having concluded that they reduce poverty without reducing employment.

UVA's living wage campaign, the first on a college campus, was launched in 1998, demanding an $8/hr living wage, indexed to keep pace with the cost of living. In 2000, UVA raised its lowest pay for direct employees from $6.10 to $8.19, without ever acknowledging the campaign, and without indexing the new rate to inflation. Unfortunately, the move didn’t help most of the low-wage workers, who are employed through contractors. The $8 campaign won living wages from the city, the public school system, and many private employers in Charlottesville. But at UVA the wages continued to drop in real terms as the cost of living soared.

In 2006, 17 students were arrested for sitting in the president's office, and a professor who tried to join them was arrested and later fired. The university raised wages once more, again without acknowledging the campaign, and again without indexing them to inflation.

President Sullivan has pointed to a 2006 state attorney general's opinion that a living wage at UVA would not be legal, an argument to which the campaign has replied with its own legal opinions and examples from around the country. Sullivan has argued that UVA now pays $13 with benefits included, but the campaign's demand is for $13 plus benefits, and for contract employees to be covered as well. The president has claimed that she cannot promise cost of living increases without knowing what future budgets will be, even though other expenses of far greater dollar amounts have been committed to. She has said state-imposed wage freezes cannot be predicted, but the campaign says such freezes do not prevent raising the minimum rate.

UVA's associate vice-president for public affairs, Carol Wood, declined to comment for this article.

The hunger strike was timed to overlap a three-day meeting of UVA's Board of Visitors. The BOV is the corporate board of the University of Virginia, its members appointed by the governor of Virginia and approved by the state’s General Assembly. The BOV is responsible for long-term planning and approves new policies and budgets at UVA. Flood and other students met twice with Sullivan and other top administrators. Flood described their decision making structure as "opaque," but said he had no doubt that if Sullivan and her administration agreed to a living wage, they could implement it and so inform the Board of Visitors.

Emily Filler was encouraged by the hunger strike, saying that in the course of two weeks a great deal of attention had been gained, many more students had become aware of the campaign, the university had for the first time agreed to audit its contractors and report on its employees' numbers and what they are paid, and two labor organizations -- SEIU and AFL-CIO -- had been brought to campus because of the attention surrounding the hunger strike.

"Right after spring break," Filler said, "we'll start organizing contract employees."

Asked if the campaign was over now that she was going back to eating, Marguerite Beattie said, "Oh, we're not giving up until there's a living wage."

This story was produced by the independent Economic Hardship Reporting Project, co-edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Linda Jue.

David Swanson's books include "War Is A Lie." He blogs at and and works for the online activist organization He hosts Talk Nation Radio.

Talk Nation Radio: Students Hunger Strike for a Living Wage

Hunter Link of the University of Virginia's Living Wage Campaign explains why he and other students stopped eating and why workers at UVA can and should be paid a living wage.

Total run time: 29:00

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Murder Is Legal, Says Eric Holder

Tag: Civil Rights

Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday explained why it's legal to murder people -- not to execute prisoners convicted of capital crimes, not to shoot someone in self-defense, not to fight on a battlefield in a war that is somehow legalized, but to target and kill an individual sitting on his sofa, with no charges, no arrest, no trial, no approval from a court, no approval from a legislature, no approval from we the people, and in fact no sharing of information with any institutions that are not the president.  Holder's speech approached his topic in a round about manner:


Virginia Nullifies NDAA

Tag: Civil Rights

Good things do come out of the Virginia state legislature.  That normally reprehensible body has just stood up to the federal outrage that has come to be known as the NDAA.  The letters stand for the National Defense Authorization Act, but at issue here is not the bulk of that bill.  Virginia's state government has no objection to dumping our grandchildren's unearned pay into the pockets of war profiteers while our schools lack funding.  At issue is the presidential power to lock people up without a trial, which was slipped into the latest military funding bill late last year and signed into law by President Barack Obama on New Year's Eve.


UVA Still Not Paying Living Wage -- UVA Students Still Not Eating

Tag: Civil Rights, Labor


'Why I'm Hunger Striking at UVA' "... in our 'caring community,' hundreds of contract employees may make as littleas $7.25/hour ... I have experienced many periods of economic hardship in mylife. Growing up, I moved over 30 times – including various stays in homelessshelters, the homes of family friends, and church basements. I know firsthandwhat the economic struggle is like for many of these underpaid workers."– Joseph Williams, third-year student at the University of Virginiaand player for Virginia Cavaliers footballGet the FactsUVA would need to spend $4.2-5.8 million to pay all direct employees at least$13/hour – or less than 0.25% of the university's $2.487 billion annual budget'Same Thing, Different Century'"I still view the University as a plantation ... the field workers aren’t goingto speak out." – Grace, former UVA employeeIf Only the Woman Who Wrote This Were President of UVA"Being paid a living wage for one's work is a necessary condition forself-actualization." – Teresa A. Sullivan, The Social Organization of WorkUPDATES: @UVALivingWage | | FacebookDO SOMETHING in Charlottesville, VA Friday: Join the Living Wage Rally at 12:00 NoonUniversity of Virginia Rotunda, street side, University Avenue (MAP)DO SOMETHING Anywhere:Politely Tell the People Who Run UVA to Act Like Decent Human BeingsTheir email addresses are publicly available right hereSign the Living Wage Campaign Petition
UVA Living Wage Hunger Strike 1

Why Students Are Hunger Striking in Virginia

Tag: Civil Rights, Political Ideas, Public Policy

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.

A rally was held on the steps of the Rotunda on Saturday to launch the hunger strike.  Chandra told the gathered crowd that this 14-year campaign by an ever-changing cast of students who typically stay only 4 years has tried teach-ins, concerts, film showings, petitions, letter-writing, marches, seminars, reports, and community outreach of all sorts.  Speaking privately, he told me that the university measures its success by its publications and many other quantities. "The well being of the lowest paid workers," he said, "has to be part of deciding whether this is a successful institution."

Without pressure for action, Chandra said, "the same passive acceptance of injustice that allowed blacks to be excluded from UVA until 1950 and women until 1970" will win out. 

Hunter Link is another hunger-striking student, the only one of the 12 not currently enrolled.  He graduated in December.  He pointed out that UVA sends students abroad to do service projects with money it could have used to pay its own workers a living wage.  Of course, it also builds giant sports arenas, raises its top salaries, and adds more buildings to its main campus all the time. 

For most of the past 14 years, UVA had a president who gave no indication that I ever saw of caring in the least what happened to the people who scrubbed his toilets.  Now, UVA has a new president, its first female president.  Her name is Theresa Sullivan, and she has published books, including quite recently, advocating for a living wage.  When it comes to actually paying one at UVA, where doing so would cost a fraction of a percent of the billions of dollars UVA is hoarding, Sullivan sings a different tune.

Hunter Link read to the crowd on Saturday a letter from an unnamed worker who complained that President Sullivan talks about "a caring community" but -- asks the worker -- "what good are values if you don't live them?"

It's popular in U.S. politics these days to prefer words to actions, but the UVA living wage campaign is taking the opposite approach, pointing out the deceptions in Sullivan's claims.  "Contrary to President Sullivan's inexplicable claims," said hunger-striker David Flood, "real wages have declined in the past six years."  Objecting to non-monetary compensation as an alternative to wages, Flood remarked to loud applause: "You cannot pay the rent with a course at UVA.  You cannot buy medicine with a coupon good only at the UVA company store."  Before UVA workers can take classes, Flood said, they must be able to buy housing, food, and medicine.  They must be able to live in the community that they make possible.  I would add that they must be able to quit their second or third jobs if they are to have time for taking classes.

The living wage campaign is demanding a minumum wage for direct, contracted, and subcontracted employees of no less that $13, and that wages be adjusted each year to comply with the Economic Policy Institute's regionally sourced cost-of-living and inflation calculations.  This must be implemented without reducing other benefits, including healthcare, without under-staffing, without reducing hours worked, and without demanding increased productivity.  We started out demanding $8, and if the University had met that demand and indexed it to the cost of living, this campaign would have ended.  Professor Susan Fraiman, who has been part of the campaign from the start, remarked on Saturday that she very much hoped she was speaking at the last living wage rally that would be needed.  That will depend on the impact of the hunger strike.

The strikers have set up a permanent vigil between the Rotunda and the UVA Chapel.  The strikers are informed, articulate, dedicated, and deadly serious.  They've had physicals and will consume only liquids.  One of them, Hallie Clark, pointed out that the Black Student Alliance rallied for higher wages at UVA in 1969.  This has been a long struggle indeed. And the majority of the lowest paid workers at this slave-built campus are still black.  The honor code still forbids cheating on tests or treating students as if they would cheat on tests.  But it does not at the moment require presidents who have publicly articulated the moral demand for a living wage to actually pay one.

President Sullivan must work with UVA's Board of Visitors.  The board members are almost all from out of town.  Most students and workers have no contact with them.  They are not a part of the Charlottesville community.  Some of them are graduates of UVA's Darden Business School, which of course teaches the benefits of low pay for workers other than oneself and erases from consideration the question of whether a worker must hold a second job, or must use only emergency rooms for healthcare, or must leave his or her children unsupervised.  When I was a graduate student in philosophy at UVA, I took a course at Darden that was jointly listed as business and philosophy.  The course sought to apply ethics to the view of business regularly promoted at Darden, which felt a bit like applying a stick of lipstick to a large and fast-moving pig.

Here's a list of the members of the Board of Visitors along with their phone numbers. You can also click their names to email them. Or click HERE to email them all at once.  Hunter Link told me the campaign had been in touch with Mark Kington of the Finance Committee and found him less than supportive.  Here's what the various members do for their day jobs.  Other than the student member and the ex-officio member, if you can find a connection between any of the other members and education please let me know.  They seem to be almost all bankers, lawyers, CEOs, and . . . well, the sort of gang that ought to be the Board of Visitors for Darden Business School, not UVA; except they wouldn't have to visit as Darden has its own supply of these types.

President Sullivan is going to have to take the lead here.  It is her students refusing to eat, across the street from her house.  Her office phone is 434-924-3337.  During the next week, she and the board members need to hear from every single one of us who cares.  The Board of Visitors will be meeting next week.  There will be rallies every day this week, leading up to that meeting.  To get involved, go to


Chat I Just Had With Homeland Security

Tag: Civil Rights

After publishing this report I was contacted by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).  The individual involved never returned my call.  Instead I heard from Brian Hale who said he had been with Director Morton at the event recently held at the University of Virginia and discussed in my report.  He told me that ICE in fact had nothing to do with contacting activists, that in fact Ed Ryan (who had contacted local residents from an ICE email address) actually worked for Federal Protective Services which used to fall under ICE and still has some ICE email addresses.  I asked Hale, regardless of department, why any branch of Homeland Security was using our money to contact us in a manner that intimidated people out of exercising their First Amendment rights.  Hale told me to ask Federal Protective Services (FPS).

I reached Rob Winchester at FPS.  I asked him about the January 20th "Occupy the Courts" events held here in Charlottesville, Va., and around the country.  He said that FPS inspectors had tried to facilitate events in order to get them permitted and make them legal.  Some of the events, he said, were on federal property.  The intent had been dialogue and not intimidation.  If people were intimidated, he said, he apologized for that.

I told Winchester that the street corner where the Charlottesville event was held is routinely used for demonstrations without permits or authorizations beyond the First Amendment, and that we have never had a problem, but that the FPS contacts instructing people to inform authorities of their plans by certain deadlines and so forth had in fact intimidated people out of exercising their rights. 

Winchester replied that at one location elsewhere in the country some people had "been pushing against the barricades."  I didn't ask what the barricades were doing there.  In another location, he said, "our folks were laughing and joking with the people there."  Mine was the first report of any intimidation, he said.

I pointed out that people who are intimidated by FPS contact do not phone in to the FPS to report that they feel intimidated.  Winchester said that he understood and would pass this along as "lessons learned."  I thanked him for his apology and for understanding.  But this is clearly a work in progress.  Many would like to be free to hold rallies without the presence of a militarized federal force, regardless of whether that force is joking and laughing with us.  Many would like to be left alone to exercise their First Amendment rights undisturbed rather than fund Big Brother to the tune of $75 billion per year, no matter how benevolent the intentions.  The problem is not Ryan or Winchester but the system they have made themselves a part of.

My advice to intimidated activists is to not leave me the only person phoning in to complain.  Phone in.  Phone every day.  Ask for a meeting to discuss the problem.  Call 202-282-8000.


Defense of "Anarchism" in Oakland Occupy or Anywhere Unconvincing

Tag: Civil Rights, Culture and Society, Political Ideas

This reply to Hedges and defense of violence completely fails to persuade.

The primary argument seems to be that if you are not in Oakland and familiar with every detail you shalt not offer your advice.  But knowing whether the person who smashed a window was wearing a mask or not hardly eliminates the possibility of usefully commenting on whether it helped or hurt to smash that window.  The defense article describes violent clashes with police and concludes "No one can agree on who attacked first." So, even being there results in important ignorance.  But in a movement publicly and convincingly committed to nonviolence we would all know who attacked first.  It would have to have been the police.  In fact, there would be no "attacked first" but simply "attacked."  In a movement hollowed out by acceptance of "diversity of tactics" (as euphemism for violence) nobody could ever be sure, even if we had witnesses and videos.  Quoting MLK in arguing against what he so persuasively denounced every day for years is a new low.


ICE Director Confronted on Intimidation of Nonviolent Citizen Activism

Tag: Civil Rights

John Morton, Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, spoke on Monday at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  Here's the University's report.  Here's the local newspaper's. Both report only on what Morton said, without mentioning what he was asked about by members of the audience following his opening remarks. 

He could have been asked about record breaking deportations and the recklessness that has deported U.S. citizens.  Perhaps he was. I wasn't there.  But Erin Rose, who was there, sent this report:

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