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Students on hunger strike demand living wages for campus workers

Published Mar 3, 2012 11:18 AM

UVA football player Joseph Williams.

Joseph Williams is a student athlete with a lot of courage, both on and off the playing field. He and 18 other students at the University of Virginia have joined the Living Wage Campaign and are on a hunger strike “to protest the economic and social injustices perpetrated by the UVA administration against the vast majority of the University’s service-sector employees.” (michaelmoore.com, Feb. 23)

Hundreds of contract employees at UVA make as little as $7.25 per hour while six out of the top 10 highest paid state employees in Virginia hold administrative positions at the school. Many employees — mostly women and African Americans — do not receive sufficient pay to cover their basic necessities in Charlottesville, where the cost of living is nearly 10 percent higher than the national average.

Williams explains why this struggle has a personal aspect: “As one of four children supported by a single mother, I have experienced many periods of economic hardship in my life. Growing up, I moved over 30 times, including various stays in homeless shelters, the homes of family friends and church basements. [Because] of these experiences, I know firsthand what the economic struggle is like for many of these underpaid workers.

“One UVA employee anonymously shared that though she works full time for the University, over 40 hours a week, her family was still forced to go without electricity for nearly three months, unable to pay for the rent, electric bill and other basic necessities on the meager wages she is paid by the [school]. Such stories are the reason that I and countless other Living Wage supporters have chosen to take up this cause and give a voice to the many University employees who often cannot speak up for fear of retaliation from the administration.”

The university can certainly afford to pay its workers a living wage. With an endowment of $5.24 billion, UVA has the largest per capita endowment of any public college in the U.S. and maintains a triple A rating from Wall Street. (The Daily Progress, May 21)

This is not counting the millions of dollars that the university receives in research grants from the federal government and other sources, nor its income from tuition payments. These fees run to $14,000 per year for out-of-state students.

Another big money maker for the university, as for many other institutions of higher education across the country, is student athletics. UVA garnered nearly $82 million in income from these activities in the 2009-2010 school year. Athletes like Williams, a football player, get no part of this largess, although some receive scholarships. Considered a “walk on,” he was not initially granted a scholarship for playing.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association vigilantly ensures that student athletes receive no income from any source other than their scholarship. Commercial endorsements, contributions and even part-time jobs are forbidden. Of course, this rule does not apply to coaches or to universities. In this way, colleges and universities preserve their monopolistic control over aspiring athletes who provide the institutions’ income from college athletics in the first place.

Progressive and working people everywhere should support and stand in solidarity with the UVA workers and hunger strikers. Their unity in opposing the exploitation of low-wage workers has significance today for the growing movement against corporate and institutional wealth.