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PERLA: The history behind University living wage activism

The campaign for the University to adopt a living wage intersects many areas

While it may seem like a resumption of normalcy after last semester’s uproar over the Rolling Stone report on sexual assault and the “Black Lives Matter” protests, the Living Wage Campaign ignited our eerily silent, snowy and slippery grounds with shouts of dissent last week. If you think the cold is bad, three years ago students in the Living Wage Campaign organized a 13-day hunger strike through the snow, rain and, of course, hunger. But the Living Wage Campaign is nothing new; it is not about trendy activism or in response to any single event. It comes out of a legacy of students putting their bodies on the line for workers’ rights, a tradition, which, if you will, is one of the University’s least publicized.

In the 1960s students went as far as Waynesboro to protest a General Electric Factory over wages and employee benefits. During Vietnam War protests in the 1970s, University students stormed the Lawn, occupied buildings and made demands from the administration, among them the right for University employees to strike and bargain collectively. And now in the context of such incendiary events last semester over hate crimes and rape, the Living Wage Campaign is not simply making noise to shout. Rather, the Living Wage Campaign’s goal to address the University’s stark division across racial and socioeconomic lines is not unrelated to the fall-out of the Rolling Stone incident.

Take, for example, the new policies. Among the sober brother rules and bystander intervention programs, the University will now increase security presence as an added safety measure. More safety means more business for private security firms. But whose work is valued more?

A private security firm in Charlottesville, H&H Security Services, said that more than 50 percent of its private event jobs are for fraternities and sororities across central Virginia. The set up: one armed guard, one unarmed; the average hourly wage to monitor closed doors and drunken crowds: $25 to $35 an hour. It is anyone’s guess as to if the $35 an hour goes to the guy with the gun. Compare this to the majority of dining hall staff on contract labor through Aramark. Not only do they fail to receive close to this figure, but many of the lowest paid workers also fail to qualify for health and education benefits because they are part-time or contract labor. The University touts itself for being “the employer of choice” in the central Virginia region, and while it may be employing more and more security guards these days, it consistently underpays its workers while the rest of the country moves on.

A bill backed by President Obama and currently stalled in Congress would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. Outside federal legislation, many states are stepping up. Over half of the 50 states and the District of Columbia now have minimum wages above the federal minimum wage, yet Virginia remains steadfastly at $7.25 an hour. Recently cities such as San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Fe and Washington D.C. have raised the minimum wage well over the $10.10 recommendation. Seattle has even approved a measure to raise its city’s minimum wage to $15. However, in Virginia, cities must cede to the state’s prerogative and cannot pass minimum wages citywide. The University does have the power to increase the wages of contract laborers, like the numerous employed by Aramark. They have taken no action as of yet, but have no problem paying top dollar for security firms to continue to protect an already closed culture.

The recent climate at the University has led to strong statements, initiatives and soul-searching about the culture of U.Va in its perpetuation of sexual assault, exclusion and violence. These actions, initiatives and the funds to make them possible came swiftly and without question to address a problem that blemished the University. Yet, the economic injustices that occur every day continue to tarnish the University’s reputation. The Living Wage Campaign seeks to influence the administration to implement realistic measures to curb injustices that we continue to view as separate problems.

James Perla is a fourth-year in the College.