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Why Students Are Hunger Striking in Virginia

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."

UVA Living Wage Hunger Strike 1

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.

UVA Living Wage Hunger Strike 2

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.

UVA Living Wage Hunger Strike 4

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.

UVA Living Wage Hunger Strike 3

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 livingwageatuva.org

UVA Living Wage Hunger Strike 5

Chat I Just Had With Homeland Security

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 MovetoAmend.org "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

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

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:

Constitutional Amendment to Create Public Financing Introduced by Kucinich

I recently recommened a comprehensive Constitutional amendment addressing the corruption of our elections.

The largest piece of it, largely inspired by an amendment drafted by Russell Simmons, had not been introduced in Congress . . .  until now.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich has just introduced HJRes100 which proposes this Constitutional Amendment:

Corporate Personhood Cannot Withstand Organized Persons

There are many schemes now for undoing the doctrines under which corporations claim constitutional rights and bribery is deemed constitutionally protected "speech." Every single one of these schemes depends on a massive movement of public pressure all across the homeland formerly known as the United States of America. With such a movement, few of the schemes can fail. Without it, we're just building castles in the air. Nonetheless, the best scheme can best facilitate the organizing of the movement.

January 20, 2012 – Move to Amend Occupies the Courts!

Jan 20, 2012: Occupy the Courts!Call to Action

Inspired by our friends at Occupy Wall Street, and Dr. Cornel West, Move To Amend is planning bold action to mark the second anniversary of the infamous Citizens United v. FEC decision!

Occupy the Courts will be a one day occupation of Federal courthouses across the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Friday January 20, 2012.

Move to Amend volunteers across the USA will lead the charge on the judiciary which created — and continues to expand — corporate personhood rights.

Americans across the country are on the march, and they are marching OUR way. They carry signs that say, “Corporations are NOT people! Money is NOT Speech!” And they are chanting those truths at the top of their lungs! The time has come to make these truths evident to the courts.

IN CHARLOTTESVILLE:
Occupy the  Federal Courthouse, W. Main and Water St.,
Friday, January 20, 2012 from 2pm to 5pm.
Bring signs and make some noise against the judiciary that created and is expanding corporate personhood rights.

For notice of other upcoming local actions send a blank email to: 99percentaction-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

Learn more:
http://movetoamend.org/occupythecourts

Corporate Personhood Worse, Ending It Easier, Than You Think

Don't take it from me.  Take it from the book being published today that will mainstream the movement to end corporate personhood: "Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do, And What You Can Do About It," by Jeff Clements with foreword by Bill Moyers.

I Just Got Banned From Capitol Hill for Speaking

This is where I can't go because I spoke.

And three of my friends got the same deal.

And in the next courtroom over our other friends were convicted by a jury of opposing torture.

And right across the hall our other friend completed her probation for having interrupted Netanyahu even though he thanked her and bragged about how she'd be treated worse in Iran, even though the assault she suffered in the US Capitol put her in a neck brace.

It was a great day for the First Amendment in Washington today.

Now, we're only banned for 6 months, and we can get invitations in writing from Congress or the Supreme Court to come and protest them as a way around the ban (I wonder how that's going to work).

We did happen to be in a Senate committee hearing when we spoke, but they were speaking quite endlessly about corporate trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and Korea.  They said they'd try to help some of the people they threw out of work.  I asked why they didn't just leave them their jobs. I was arrested.  Then they spoke a lot about Korean tariffs vs US tariffs on beef, and one of us criminals asked why we really needed to ship beef back and forth across the Pacific. Handcuffs on her.  This was in October.  Here we are in January finding out what is to be done to us to protect the Homeland.

It turns out we're not a threat to the Homeland at all, just to one little hill.