Modeling social justice

LAST WEEK as the Living Wage Campaign rallied support for raising the wages of workers, a new group calling themselves the Market Wage Campaign boldly defended the University's right to pay poverty wages. Last Friday, the campaign sponsored a lecture with Economics Prof. Edwin Burton called "The Economics of the Living Wage." Burton argued that raising the minimum wage to $10.72 would actually increase poverty in Charlottesville by decreasing the number of opportunities for employment. According to Burton, every potential employee has a certain "skill level" depending on his or her abilities, and adopting the living wage would "eliminate the hiring of people who have skill levels below $10.72."

This argument has many flaws, but it's important to engage it because opponents of the living wage often claim that economic theory supports their position. First of all, the idea that each person's skills can be measured down to the dollar is unrealistic. Most employees earning the current minimum wage are already working well below their own skill levels; they have intelligence and talents far beyond cleaning floors and serving food.

Economics Prof. Bruce Reynolds pointed out that since many low-paying jobs are not directly connected to a revenue inflow to the University, the measure of an individual employee's skill level becomes subjective: The person making hiring decisions would have a hard time determining the exact dollar value of a gardener who tends to the flowers on Grounds. Thus the hiring decision would most likely be made by comparing two job applicants against each other.

More importantly, the University will always try to keep labor costs as low as possible, whether we pay a living wage or not. Managers don't keep unnecessary employees around out of the kindness of their hearts. We already hire as few employees as possible to do the jobs that need to be done.

Even in cold, hard economic terms, higher wages would not result in a drastic reduction of employment opportunities. The amount of work required to run a university guarantees that we will employ at least the minimum number of people required to provide services and maintain buildings and landscapes on Grounds.

Yet even if the cost of higher wages does tempt the University to hire fewer people, our administrators have the power to ensure that it doesn't happen. We aren't helpless slaves to market forces. We are sentient humans with free will, and if our administrators valued social justice above financial calculations, they could direct our resources to cover the cost of a living wage. They could ensure that workers were not laid off to save money. These actions may seem counter-intuitive to administrators who are used to minimizing labor costs in favor of basketball arenas, but it's entirely within their power to prioritize a living wage for workers.

Why should the University spend more money on wages? Quite simply, because it's the right thing to do. But if that's not enough, the administration should consider the demonstrations they have witnessed in the past week. Seventeen students risked their health and their grades to stand up for workers, and hundreds more rallied in support of their cause. At a University that supposedly believes in student self-governance, the values of the student body should mean something.

If the administration ignores the demands of the Living Wage Campaign, they are telling students that "self-governance" is a joke. The powers of Student Council have been stripped down to almost nothing: Members pass empty resolutions that lead nowhere. The Board of Visitors has one student member who can't even vote. Without the ability to directly act on our concerns, students depend on the administration to listen to us and to take us seriously.

The students who protested at Madison Hall believe that the University has a moral responsibility to the community that surrounds it. Living up to this responsibility might require us to spend more money. It might require us to divert funds from other areas. But if that's what the students and faculty of this University want to see, there is no reason that we can't do it.

As we debate the living wage, we should certainly consider the economic theory behind each argument, and Burton should be commended for taking the time to discuss the issue with students. But we cannot blame economics for low wages as though the University has no control over labor decisions. Low wages represent a conscious choice to exploit workers for the benefit of the University.

Cari Lynn Hennessy's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at chennessy@cavalierdaily.com.

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