Living Wage Campaign activists rally outside Board of Visitors meeting

The rally was intended to protest the University’s lack of progress on the issue

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Dozens of demonstrators were present at the rally, and the group mainly consisted of students. 

Riley Walsh | Cavalier Daily

Activists from the Living Wage Campaign held a rally outside of the ongoing Board of Visitors sessions Friday afternoon at the Rotunda. The demonstration occurred as Board members, including President Jim Ryan, were slated to discuss major decisions involving minimum wage increases for University employees and affordable housing.The University’s Community Working Group, created by Ryan in 2018, had delivered its official report earlier in the morning, which identified both affordable employee housing and fair wages as top priorities. 

As the self-proclaimed oldest living wage advocacy group in the country, the Living Wage Campaign also has a substantial history of both at the University and in Charlottesville at large. Over its 21-year history, the campaign has a number of victories under its belt, including actively leading the drive to an $8 minimum wage in 1998 and organizing a 14-day hunger strike in 2012 in which 21 students participated. Both events drew widespread media coverage. 

Comprised of students, faculty and community members, the Living Wage Campaign has featured prominently at the University and in the greater community in the past year. Founded in 1997 with the stated purpose of “advocat[ing] for workers rights on Grounds” and “drawing attention to issues of inequality, poverty and the fact that worker’s rights are civil rights,” the group criticized Ryan heavily last December for his perceived failure to take a strong enough position on the wage issue. Ryan had at the time declined to take a stance on the subject, stating that he would need to do more research on issue before making a decision. 

“The University’s historical unwillingness to treat its low-wage staff as full members of our community has led to gross inequity and unfair working conditions,” said a press release issued by the organization prior to the event. “For an employer with a deeply racist past, the fact that these employees are disproportionately people of color, recent immigrants, and/or refugees, constitutes a continuation of UVA’s white supremacist legacy.”

The press release also contained a four-point list of demands — that the University implement a living wage of $16.84 an hour in addition to healthcare benefits, that contracted employees — including Aramark dining service staff and others — be included in proposed wage increases, that the University support affordable housing for its employees and that the University create open channels for dialogue with low-wage staff without fear of reprisal from management. 

While Ryan has promised to make pursuing a living wage a priority of his presidency, including stating that he would like to have a solution in hand by the end of the current academic year, the Living Wage campaign argued that time is of the essence. 

“President James E. Ryan’s Community Working Group has affirmed our insistence that compensation, housing, and race lie at the core of UVA’s problems,” said the press release. "We applaud group’s efforts. President Ryan has expressed interest in the University’s working conditions and a willingness to engage on the issue beyond his predecessors, but now it is time for the and the Board of Visitors to act.”

Activists braved rain and cold temperatures to let their voices be heard. At least four dozen demonstrators were present at the rally, and the group mainly consisted of students. 

Demonstrators gathered first on the Rotunda steps, holding signs and banners in support of a $16.84 living wage, affordable housing for workers and an end to the prison-industrial complex. Organizers then addressed the crowd, stating the purpose of the demonstration, reading off testimonials from University employees and reiterating the group’s list of demands. 

In order to address their concerns directly to the Board of Visitors, the protest then moved to the Rotunda’s front porch, where only steps away, the Board was engaged in full session. Organizers led the group in chants of “You can’t survive on $7.25,” and “Jim Ryan, stop the lies. Let the workers organize,” and read off a list of grievances against specific Board members. 

Among the individuals criticized were Board Rector Frank “Rusty” M. Conner III, who the protestors accused of buying his position through donations to the governor and who worked on transactions cumulatively worth more than $100 billion during his career at international law firm Covington and & Burling, and Robert M. Blue, Executive Vice President and President and CEO of Dominion Energy’s Power Delivery Group. Demonstrators erroneously stated that Blue was the company’s CEO. 

While organizers expressed support for President Ryan’s recent creation of a Community Working Group to address some of the group’s concerns, protestors also took issue with the University’s renewal of a 20-year contract with Aramark, whose contract employees staff the University’s dining halls. According to fourth-year College student Elise Peterson-McMath, who attended the rally and was invited by the campaign to speak at the event, some English learning were not allowed to attend English as a second language class “due to understaffing issues” but are now allowed to attend for a minimum of 30 minutes in the work day unless the service is “significantly understaffed that day.” 

“The main change that we have seen since the workers are no longer permitted to stay clocked in during this hour has been in the fact that many workers are not allowed to stay for the full hour of English class anymore and are only given permission to come for thirty minutes,” Peterson-McMath said in an email. “The main point being that our partnership with corporate Aramark differs greatly from the support we receive from the University, specifically UVA Facilities.”

Peterson-McMath said that the University often does not treat contract staff with the same respect as other full-time employees. 

“I think the University doesn't have to go through the trouble and the expenses of employing people themselves. So they hire a contracted company to do the work for them, and in effect they don’t have to pay as much money,” Peterson-McMath said. “And they place all the responsibility on [the company] and act like their hands are tied.”

While the demonstration was intended to be a peaceful one — and the University Police Department did not order the crowd to disperse — a window was broken on the north side of the Rotunda, facing the Lawn. According to the Daily Progress, students had been slapping their hands against the Rotunda windows, which resulted in the damage. The damage was repaired within 24 hours, although University spokesman Anthony de Bruyn stated in an email to the Cavalier Daily that a total cost estimate for the maintenance work was not yet available. The University does not plan on taking additional preventative measures in response to the incident. 

Corey Runkel, a third-year College student and spokesperson for the Living Wage Campaign at U.Va., also stressed that the time is long past for partial solutions to the problem. 

“There really are no intermediary steps to paying a living wage,” Runkel said in an email statement to the Cavalier Daily. “There are other, separate actions that we would like (contractor parity, transparency in management, the BoV to act like they are the board of a school and not Walmart) but resolution does not happen until workers get the resources to decide how to live their lives.”

In terms of the campaign’s confidence in the current University administration to make good on student and community concerns over the minimum wage, Runkel stated that the responsibility for change is no longer solely the University’s, but lies with the people themselves. 

“After several decades we put confidence not in UVA administrators--whoever they may be--but in ourselves and organizers around Charlottesville,” Runkel said. “[President Ryan] signed a letter of support as a law professor here several years ago, but we have learned from a quarter century here not to rely on things of that nature. We will advocate regardless.”

While the demonstration was mainly concerned with providing a living wage and affordable housing for University employees, race was also discussed in tandem with the University’s controversial racial history. According to speakers from the Living Wage Campaign, black community members and other minority groups, including non-native English speakers, disproportionately hold wage-based salary positions within the University.

First-year College student Gabryelle Francois, who attended the event after hearing about it from one of her professors, commented on her experience as a black student on Grounds. 

“When I go into my classroom, it’s pretty rare for me to see someone of color, but when I go into the dining halls, that’s when I see my face reflected,” Francois said. “And I don’t think that should be the only place where I see my color reflected within the community. It’s like a business here — we have so much money. We can be helping a lot of people by hiring more people of color.”

Correction: The article previously misstated that Aramark no longer allows staff allotted time during the work day to attend free English as a second language classes and has been changed to reflect that some employees were previously not allowed to attend due to issues with understaffing and that all employees are allowed to attend for at least 30 minutes during the day, unless they are understaffed. The article has been edited to reflect that employees are not allowed to record their English as a second language classes as part of their work day hours, and many of them are given permission to stay for 30 minutes, as opposed to the full hour. The article also previously misstated Board Rector Frank "Rusty" M. Conner III was involved in University investments worth $100 billion but has been reflected to say he worked on more than $100 billion worth of transactions during his career at law firm Covington & Burling. 

Correction: The article previously misstated that Aramark no longer allows staff allotted time during the work day to attend free English as a second language classes and has been changed to reflect that some employees were previously not allowed to attend due to issues with understaffing and that all employees are allowed to attend for at least 30 minutes during the day, unless they are understaffed. The article has been edited to reflect that employees are not allowed to record their English as a second language classes as part of their work day hours, and many of them are given permission to stay for 30 minutes, as opposed to the full hour. The article also previously misstated Board Rector Frank "Rusty" M. Conner III was involved in University investments worth $100 billion but has been reflected to say he worked on more than $100 billion worth of transactions during his career at law firm Covington & Burling. 

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