Jefferson's Sweatshop

The living wage campaign as a national phenomenon has grown rapidly. Twenty-nine cities, counties, and school boards have passed explicit living wage ordinances raising the minimum wage for anyone employed directly or indirectly by that body. These wage rates vary, but are often an amount designed to keep a full-time worker’s family of four out of poverty.

A Living Wage ordinance stipulates that the minimum wage level will be adjusted for inflation and cost of living annually. Other cities have raised their wages as a result of living wage campaigns without adopting an ordinance that guarantees the same effective minimum wage in the future. Charlottesville took this step on April 15th.

A major argument for paying workers a Living Wage is that it allows them to have and maintain a family (in some cases of only two people, whether two adults or an adult and a child). The official national poverty line is based on 1950s calculations and is set extremely low. Nobody will ever get rich off a living wage, even in a multiple-earner household. But it a quintessential
Family-Values policy.

People will, however, be able to live better lives, work more productively at one job by dropping second and third jobs, receive much more credit from banks, and depend less on food stamps, earned income tax credits, and Medicade (not to mention, in some cases, crime) in order to scrape by.

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. A city councilperson was recently elected in Chicago on a living wage platform.

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, and the size of the middle class. 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. Yes, friends, there IS hunger, lack of medicine, and unsanitary living conditions right here in the U.S.A.

One battle in the campaign to help U.S. poor is taking place at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, a location heavily populated by people who believe that anyone not doing well in this country is lazy and that government “interference in the market” is somehow evil (two of the main ideas opposing the living wage campaign).

A group of students, professors, and staff at UVa have organized a Labor Action Group and gained the support of many local organizations, including the Monticello Area Community Action Agency and the Charlottesville NAACP.The website for UVa’s Labor Action Group (LAG) is at:

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 (briefly, of course) 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 (among many other things): 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 and another near campus, 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. This is in addition to the $1 billion being received in donations.

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 must compel all state schools to raise staff salaries. And why should Richmond permit city government employees to escape poverty (as has recently occured 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. And studies of living wage ordinances, such as in Baltimore, have shown that declines in turnover rates and the expense of interviewing, as well as increases in morale, go some distance toward balancing out the expense of paying a decent wage. The Living Wage ordinance in Los Angeles raised workers’ disposable income by 50% and cut their dependence on government charity by 40%, while costing companies on average 1% of their budget (before alculation of resulting gains). The city of Chicago spent the same amount on a Living Wage as it spent on lights and flowers for a Democratic Convention. UVa’s budget and turnover rates are both unusually high. So the interests of neither the state’s economy nor UVa’s bottom line would seem to be 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.

This situation allows living wage supporters to actually argue AGAINST government interference, and – as in the case of opposing “Right to Work” laws – to take sides with libertarians. UVa has (whether due to moral pressure, cynical calculation, or economic enlightenment) professed a desire to pay higher wages using its own ample supply of money. Few Charlottesvillians will argue that Richmond shouldn’t let UVa do so.

There are, however, those who believe UVa to be insincere and/or who believe these workers don’t “deserve” to be paid more (and would be all right if they’d only stop having children). Others suggest that rather than complaining about insufficient pay, workers should exercise their “free right” to quit (although presumably even these people are aware that workers do quit whenever they manage to find better jobs). This kind of bald cruelty is not so easy to refute.

More importantly, there are those who argue that students and professors should stay out of the affairs of workers who may not want to be helped (who may be as happy earning $6 as they would be earning $8). But LAG has recently been involving more workers in its efforts and slowly breaking down what seems to be the chief obstacle in that regard, namely employees’ fear of reprisals for speaking 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.

LAG was formed in the summer of 1997, following a “Teach-In with the Labor Movement” held at UVa 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 some of 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 oncentrated 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. Fortunately the going rate in the region is climbing higher at other employers despite the influence of the area’s largest.

Many employees at UVa are hired by private contractors who set their own pay ates, 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.

By applying public pressure to the Board of Visitors, LAG hopes to determine whether the passing of the buck to Richmond is 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.

President Casteen has recently said that he hopes the Living Wage campaign succeeds. He can do more than hope.

LAG organized a demonstration the afternoon of Friday, March 26th, outside the Rotunda at the center of campus where the Board of Visitors, which sets the university’s budget, was meeting. On the 25th, the BOV contacted LAG to agree to send out representatives to accept a stack of petitions (and to try to save face for the television cameras).

During a brief pause in the marching and chanting of about two hundred people waving banners and circling, picket-style, on Thomas Jefferson’s Lawn (newly renamed T.J.’s Sweatshop), a student member of LAG handed BOV representative John Ackerly a petition signed by over 1000 members of the UVa community, including some who had requested that their names be blacked out because they feared reprisals from their supervisors. The petition, which was also signed by the representatives of two local labor groups together representing over 1300 individuals, read 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.”

The city of Charlottesville has raised its employees’ wages to above $8 per hour, and done so on the anniversary of LAG’s initiating a campaign at UVa. This should send a message to the university. Many professors and students say that 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.

The March 26th demonstration was one in what has been a series of lobbying efforts sponsored by LAG over the past year-and-a-half. Awareness of this issue at UVa is increasing. A group of UVa drama students recently put on two performances of Clifford Odets’ 1935 play “Waiting for Lefty” for the purpose of dramatizing the need for a living wage. Orange and blue “$8” buttons are becoming a common site on and off campus.

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