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Singing for wages

Three very different styles of music were combined in one voice Friday night to raise awareness of the Labor Action Group's Living Wage Campaign.

Folk singer John McCutcheon, blues artist Corey Harris, and the Sanctuary Choir from Mt. Zion Baptist Church took the stage at Old Cabell Hall Auditorium to support the Campaign.

"It's a compelling campaign," McCutcheon said. He added that he agreed to perform because he supports the cause.

"You have one of the most well-endowed public universities in the country looking like they're going to be coming up with a billion dollars in this next drive and they have full-time employees who qualify for welfare," he said.

McCutcheon said all three performing acts were eager to help.

"When I called Corey and Jonathan Spivey, they didn't hesitate a second," he said.

Jonathan Spivey, the Minister of Music for the 39-member Sanctuary Choir of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, said his church believes in being active in the community.

"I really believe in this cause," Spivey said. "I wholeheartedly believe that our thoughts about wages have to change."

Started by the Labor Action Group, the Living Wage Campaign has been active at the University for over a year.

"We launched it on April 15, 1998, and we picked that day because it's Tax Day, a day when people are self-conscious about money, and we felt that the University community should be self-conscious about what people are making," said Assoc. English Prof. Susan Fraiman, an active LAG member. "What they're getting is around $6.37 an hour, which is below the poverty level for a family of four and, as a result, people who are working full time are forced to work two or three jobs."

The purpose of the Living Wage Campaign is to pressure the University to ensure that every employee is earning a "living wage" of $8 an hour.

"Not surprisingly, and unfortunately, the folks who are earning under $8 an hour are disproportionately African American," Fraiman said, calling it "a kind of economic racism."

Fraiman said that while wages are the focus of this campaign, there is still more to be concerned about.

"It's the first step in trying to make visible a lot of the staff whose needs are being neglected," Fraiman said. She said that it is the view among much of the University's clerical staff that evaluations are arbitrary.

"There's some sense of low morale and a sense that their concerns aren't being addressed among staff at all levels," she said.

McCutcheon agreed with Fraiman that University officials should put the living wage at the top of their agenda.

"I believe that every worker ought to have a living wage," McCutcheon said. "Let's have U.Va. really lobby for this."

Fourth-year College student Joy Hunt, a Labor Action Group member, said the concert had several functions.

"The purpose was fundraising ... an additional benefit was increasing awareness of the Campaign in general," Hunt said.

While University officials have said in the past that the state controls wages for classified, or hourly wage, workers, LAG members said contract workers' wages are not controlled by the state.

Fraiman said one problem is that to save money, many jobs that were formerly done by University employees are now contracted out to be done by outside companies, and many of those companies pay between $5-6 an hour.

"Lots of areas of work at the University are being privatized," she said. "Those private companies can pay whatever they want."

She said University President John T. Casteen III is not doing enough, although he has said in the past that he hopes the Campaign will succeed, despite it being out of his hands.

"Even if that's true, the University has the ability to say we'll only sign a contract with people who pay $8 an hour," Fraiman said. "We see that as an inconsistency. They could contract out to companies that pay the living wage."

"We think that U.Va. could take more initiative in lobbying Richmond," Fraiman said. "They could take a lot more leadership in terms of initiating legislation instead of passively following it."

Fraiman said the University "only gets 14 percent of its budget from Richmond."

"U.Va. has autonomy in the area of staff compensation," Fraiman said. "It can do more than it's saying to get around whatever the state restrictions are."

But Leonard W. Sandridge, University executive vice president and chief financial officer, said the University does not have the authority to change the pay scale without authorization from the state.

"Our employees are part of the state classified system," Sandridge said. "State classified employees in similar employment categories receive the same pay here at U.Va. as they do in Richmond or Roanoke or Norfolk."

"This is not a funding issue," he said. "Even if we have the money, we do not have the unilateral authority to increase the salaries of classified employees."

He added that the state, through the 1999 General Assembly, has authorized a study of the classified compensation system, and the University is involved in making recommendations to the state. "There are improvements that can be made to the state compensation system and I am optimistic that the study may be the vehicle to do it," Sandridge said.

He said he personally opposed a technical wage objective because it could hurt benefits packages.

"Health and life insurance, sick leave, paid vacations and holidays, and contributions to employees' retirement programs are important and costly additions to the total compensation package at U.Va.," he added.

"A review of some of our positions recently led us to upgrade the salary of a number of our lower paid employees," Sandridge said. "We have authorized an evening shift pay supplement for a number of our housekeepers ... More recently, we adopted what is called a 'stepless' pay plan and are developing a second proposal to allow advancement within classified grades that could benefit some long-term employees."

Yet Fraiman said the Campaign has had more success in Charlottesville, where a number of businesses have decided to raise wages as a result of the Campaign, and City Council members like Vice Mayor Meredith Richards, who has taken up the fight to raise University wages as well.

"The city's only as prosperous as the least prosperous among us," Richards said. "The city of course has a little bit more independence in terms of its ability to set its own salary scales and we also have had a prosperous several years."

The living wage "was something that we wrote into this years' budget last April," she said. "We made that a policy."

"I think that for this campaign to succeed in Richmond, it's also going to have to expand to include other state universities," she added. "It's going to be necessary to build a basis of support at each state-supported university so that Richmond will understand that this is coming not just from the University of Virginia, but is a state wide initiative."

Richards said the state has unprecedented financial prosperity in terms of the state treasury -- enough to fund a wage increase.

"There are millions and millions of dollars in surplus this year in the state budget and there's no good reason why that shouldn't be invested in our human resources, in the people who work for the state," she said.

Additionally, the concert's organizers are optimistic about the effect the concert will have on the Campaign.

Fourth-year College student Stephanie Taylor coordinates student involvement in the Labor Action Group.

"I thought the concert was very successful," Taylor said. "I expect that the concert helped to raise awareness in the Charlottesville community about this campaign, and also raised some much-needed funds, which will increase the efficiency and reach of the Labor Action Group."

McCutcheon agreed that the concert was a success.

"It was successful in that a lot of music tends to reach a very narrow demographic," McCutcheon said.

English graduate student Derek Nystrom, a Labor Action Group member, also said he was impressed with the turnout.

"It was really kind of great that it was both folks from the University and also from the larger community-we sold every ticket we had," Nystrom said.

"I hope the people who came were energized by the show," he said. "It's a long struggle and this is just one step on the road -- I hope that it keeps the issue at the forefront of people's minds."

History Prof. Nelson Lichtenstein estimated that the concert raised over $4,000 after expenses through ticket sales, ads and donations.

"This was an opportunity for us to lend our support to the Campaign, to help bring attention the Campaign," McCutcheon said. "I'm sure there were a lot of people who came just to hear the music."

He said that at the end of the show the three performing acts played on stage together.

"We all got to play music together, which was great fun," he said. "It's part of why you do events like this and part of why people come."

"This concert is not an end -- it's part of the process of winning this campaign," he added. "This concert by comparison was an easy thing to do. The hard work happens at the hands of people who don't get applause every five minutes"