Jefferson’s Eternal Sweatshop

I attended a rally at the University of Virginia Monday evening that was organized by students who would like UVA to pay its workers a living wage. The event was inspiring, but it could easily have been aggravating — for the simple reason that 12 years ago I and a lot of other students held similar rallies to make the same demand.

Back then our demand was for a minimum of $8 per hour, and we displayed that $8 in orange and blue on buttons and stickers, on shirts and in store windows, and in the new policies of local businesses, school boards, and governments. We held rallies and concerts, gathered petitions, and made a heck of a lot of noise.

Eventually, long after I had left, the university met our demand. Eventually a labor union, of all unimaginable things, was formed at Mr. Jefferson’s university. But the union didn’t last, and neither did the living wage. It’s not that UVA lowered its wages. Rather, the cost of living increased. Who could have ever predicted that? The City of Charlottesville’s living wage standard is indexed to rise with the cost of living. As Mayor Dave Norris remarked to me on Monday, “It’s not rocket science.” And yet, such a simple solution has been too much for my alma mater to handle. Year after year, UVA would rather have a big noisy battle over its poverty wages than lose a few pennies to basic human decency — or, as is entirely possible — gain a few pennies by making its staff more loyal and efficient.

Students at Monday’s rally read aloud anonymous testimony from UVA workers. One of them said she works 12 hours each day, but gets paid at a lower rate for the last four, rather than receiving the increased pay for overtime that our laws require. The way UVA gets around the requirement to pay overtime is by giving this worker two jobs. She works eight hours for UVA and then four more, doing the exact same job, for a contractor with UVA.

Another worker’s testimony said that he works more than fulltime for dining services in Jefferson’s sweatshop and has a second job but still can’t pay the bills. Another employee of dining services couldn’t afford groceries and had to file bankruptcy. He now has another UVA job with such long hours he never sees his family.

What drives me crazy is that these are the same kind of stories that we were outraged about 12 years ago. A student at Monday’s rally apologized to those who are now homeless because UVA let them down in the past, but noted that the same policies still prevail.

We looked into every possible justification for poverty wages 12 years ago, every economist’s rationale, every bureaucrat’s excuse, every politician’s buck passing. We built a solid case for the moral and economic and social benefit of a living wage. But winning a debate doesn’t change anything.

So what did I find inspiring about joining this campaign again on Monday? Well, I see four big advantages the living wage campaign at UVA has now, compared to in the olden days.

First, the living wage movement has real examples of success from around the country — not just ordinances passed, but documented economic benefits. The City of Charlottesville is a nearby example. Mayor Dave Norris and City Council Member Kristin Szakos, both of whom usually support good causes, were joined by City Council Member Satyendra Huja on Monday evening, meaning a majority of the 5-member city council was in attendance. Norris argued that the city had benefitted from its living wage policy and had passed a resolution encouraging UVA to meet the students’ demand of $11.44 per hour for all direct or contracted employees, plus benefits including healthcare.

Second, the campaign has a lot of experience to draw on. A new committee of 15 professors has just formed to support the student-led effort, including at least three professors who were part of the campaign when I was. These are people who know the facts in their sleep and make smart demands of the university.

Third, in recent years the campaign has gained strength through nonviolent civil resistance. The powers that be at UVA have got to know these students will not be afraid to disrupt their Jeffersonian aristocracy in which university executives are paid as much as $700,000 a year.

Fourth, UVA has a new president this year in Teresa Sullivan. Professor Tico Braun said on Monday that Sullivan recently spoke with Congressman Gerry Connolly in Northern Virginia about wage policies at UVA. We know this thanks to Zach Fields who works for Connolly but used to be a UVA student rallying for a living wage. According to Fields, Sullivan seemed to see the merits of paying a living wage.

President Sullivan will face a public uproar every single year of her tenure at the campus that local slaves built as long as she leaves indecent employment policies in place. She would look far better and generate a tremendous amount of good-will were she to insist on a living wage now and index it to the cost of living, thereby eliminating the need to re-fight this every year. Sullivan would be honored for such an act above all others, upon her retirement, even if that didn’t come for decades.

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