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Livable wages: class tensions

The push for higher wages for those at the bottom of the University

The issue of class inequality has risen to the forefront in recent weeks as the living wage campaign renews its push to improve the wages of the University's lowest-paid employees.

At an event held two weeks ago, faculty and students rallied with chants - "one, two, three, four, no one should be working-poor" - renewing a debate that has long sparked conflict among students, administrators and staff at the University.

The student campaign\nThe living wage campaign is nothing new. Every few years, a small group protests what they describe as unlivable wages. Through it, workers remain silent and disorganized. The administration maintains a steady refrain: "Money is tight." And the issue is buried once more under the surface.

"When you start thinking about a living wage," said Tre Davis, intern for the City of Charlottesville Dialogue on Race, "you get into the nitty-gritty of buried tensions."

In April 2006, 17 University students sat in at Madison Hall to demand a living wage for University employees. Leonard Sandridge, executive vice president and chief operating officer, gave the students five minutes to leave the building after they sat in for three days. The students still did not budge, however, and were arrested shortly thereafter. During their trial, the students were reprimanded for being overly confrontational. But they claimed Sandrige had not allowed them enough time to deliberate about whether they should stay or leave, and that they were mishandled by police; a judge acquitted them.

Today the living wage campaign is noticeably less combative. The rally two weeks ago took place in Newcomb Hall Ballroom and was approved by the administration. The tone, rather than demanding, was one of moral appeal. "[T]he policies and practices of this University are the outcome of explicit decisions made by real people," the fliers stated.

The chants in the ballroom sobered as campaign organizers tried to demonstrate that the University has not made choices in the interest of its workers. They read anonymous statements by employees who work second and third jobs to meet their families' basic needs. They read one woman's description of how her cleaning job is a dead end.

"This is my job, it's going be my job. And I've got to work this job all day because I've got a family," she wrote.

Chief Human Resources Officer Susan Carkeek said the University offers workers a way out of this. She pointed to the annual $2,000 stipend that a worker employed directly by the University can use to further his education. And, she added, "We're always making sure there's a way for employees to pursue careers beyond entry-level jobs." Rather than raising wages of its lowest workers, the University hopes to allow workers to gain the skills necessary to obtain positions that pay higher wages.

Speaking for himself and not the University, Board of Visitors member Randal Kirk expressed that if workers do not take advantage of these opportunities, there is not much the University can do: "It's hard to help people who don't want to be helped."

Proponents of the living wage argue that the University's stance only justifies the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Campaign organizer Greg Casar said the opportunities the University offers for advancement are not always what they are made out to be. But there is also a sense that all Americans accept the ideology of self-reliance and self-advancement.

"We live in meritocratic system," Economics Prof. Ariell Reshef said. "Within that broad and crude framework, we consider issues ranging from efficiency to social justice."

By this account, we are all implicated in the sufferings - as well as successes - brought about by American democracy. But it is not always easy to reconcile economics and social justice.

"We talk about racial progress," History Prof. Claudrena Harold said, "because it seems to prove the perfectibility of America. But once we add in poor people - well, it's a lot harder to prove anything."

Job value and race\nAs capitalists, we tend to assign a job's value first in terms of economic efficiency, Reshef explained. That is, employers pay the lowest wage that will attract workers with the necessary skills and keep them working most effectively. Across many sectors of the nation's economy, a wage that is too low might lead to unhappiness and discontent, factors which may lead a worker to work less productively. But a wage that is too high might place too great of a financial strain on an employer.

It is a delicate balance, and some supporters of the campaign argue that the lowest efficient wage at which workers at the University function most productively is a living wage, which they mark as $11.44 per hour. The University's minimum wage, though, is currently $10.14. Davis said if the University paid its workers more, they would be able to afford healthier food and lead better lives at home, which would translate to them being more productive in the workplace. Furthermore, because they receive higher wages, the cost of losing their high-paying job is greater because it may be difficult to find a job that paid just as well. This creates an incentive for employees to work harder at their current jobs to avoid being laid off.

Right now, Davis said, "You've got a bunch of employees spending everything they make just to get by, and that's not what a good economy looks like."

"If [the University] paid a living wage," he continued, "they would see a real economic benefit - not immediately, but in the near future. It would also be a tremendous push forward for the Charlottesville economy."

Kirk disagreed, saying people work best when they have something to work for. "The idea [of a living wage] is that people should be paid for more than they achieve." Kirk explained that growing up, his family was not well-educated and did not have many resources; he worked hard and today he's educated and wealthy - and, he added, he still spends almost every waking moment at work. Many students at the University maintain jobs to pay for their education; others pay tuition with loans or with hard-earned scholarships. Many people who work hard in America are still rewarded.

But there are also those who never see these rewards. Statistically speaking, the poor in this country are getting poorer while the rich are getting richer. According to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the top 1 percent of earners received more than 80 percent of the total increase in Americans' income from 1980 to 2005. And the people making the least are most heavily represented by racial minorities. In 2007, the average white household in Charlottesville had a net worth that was about $60,000 more than the average black household. By last count in Charlottesville during 1999, the median income of white families was more than twice that of black families.

"There's a reason that most low-paid U.Va. employees have black faces," Davis said, alluding to America's history of racism, which has led to a cycle of generational poverty among certain minority groups.

In a 1968 sermon, Martin Luther King said, "It's all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps." Casar said that kind of expectation for self-advancement before basic needs are met is exactly what the nation is asking of many people today, including some University workers. The hope is that a living wage would give people bootstraps with which to lift themselves up.

Kirk said he hoped for the same thing. "I agree with [this] underlying sentiment completely," he said of the living wage campaign. But he said it was an issue of class and not race.

"When you look at expectations of working class people, it's not the same as people at the turn of the century," he said. "The expectation now is that you have a car, a TV and cell phone - it's unnecessary."

He said he would rather see money help students pay for education - an investment he said has a meaningful return - rather than simply giving it to workers, even if those workers are disadvantaged by factors such as history and race.

But proponents of a living wage argue that despite celebrated programs like AccessUVa, at the end of the day the University is most concerned about its bottom line. Either way, it is an issue that is far from settled and is sure to reignite tensions if the protestors do not achieve their goals this time around.

This is the first in a series of articles about the living wage campaign. Tomorrow's installment will concentrate on workers employed indirectly by the University through contracted companies, and next Monday the focus will shift to a broader view of labor laws in Virginia.


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