The student-led “Worker Voices of UVA” exhibit was showcased at OpenGrounds April 22 with a two-fold mission — to highlight the experiences of University employees who ensure the school operates every day and to illuminate the unpleasant truths about working and living in Charlottesville.
Fourth-year College student Erin Sutherland, who conducted worker interviews, acknowledged the appreciation students demonstrate for workers but described the exhibit as a necessary step students need to take to understand the lives of workers with whom they interact every day.
“The interesting thing I’ve seen is that students tend to appreciate workers, but I don’t think they go to that next step of what it is like to work at a predominately white, upper-middle class student body institution where most of the administration is [from] a different ethnic background than the workers and a different gender than the workers,” Sutherland said.
Portions of transcribed interviews with workers were mounted on the wall and were supplemented with visuals to convey worker’s experiences with harassment, unfair treatment from management and alienation between them and the University community at large. Additionally, exhibit visitors could listen to parts of transcribed interviews recorded by voice actors.
One mounted poster described how workers are encouraged to distance themselves from students, complicating their ability to integrate into the University community.
“They say this move-in weekend we can’t communicate with the parents. We ain’t supposed to communicate with the kids. I don’t think it’s right. How you gonna be in there like, picking up their trash and stuff, and we can’t say nothing to them? It’s crazy,” the poster read.
Event organizers had to comply with Institutional Review Board requirements, because the project involved real people. Therefore, they were required to protect worker anonymity and ensure workers were not in jeopardy of losing their jobs or receiving punishment.
Third-year College student Carolina Anaya described the exhibit as depicting a surprising juxtaposition between working conditions and the way in which employees carry themselves.
“The exhibit showed me how U.Va. management often treats U.Va. service workers unfairly, especially by brushing poor working conditions under the rug instead of actually trying to improve the situation,” Anaya said. “The fact that many service workers can still be so positive and helpful towards students shocks me.”
Even when workers attempted to file complaints surrounding issues they faced in the work environment, Sutherland described the process as so fruitless that workers became discouraged altogether.
“Times when workers wanted to file a complaint for issues related to harassment, management either explicitly shut it down or in other ways encouraged the worker not to come forward and file the complaint,” Sutherland said.
Because the University contracts dining and maintenance employees through companies like Aramark, employees are not entitled to the minimum wage payments employees directly contracted by the University receive. Consequently, “Worker Voices of UVA” also seeks to call attention to the financial barriers University-contracted employees face, because of how external companies issue their payments.
Another mounted poster of an interview explained the difficulty of part-time employment at the University.
“People get laid off for a month and a half for Christmas. They close down in the summertime. It’s a lot of food service people that come to housing now so they can keep working, so they can keep a paycheck coming in. They have to cancel their insurance that they have, and then they have to start all over again,” the poster read.
Sutherland emphasized how workers face difficulties making a living wage, and how contract parity creates inconsistencies between the University’s messages and practices as the largest employer in Charlottesville.
“U.Va. has the ability in their contract to audit those companies to find out what they’re paying or how many people even work for Aramark. But by refusing to conduct that audit, U.Va. literally has no idea how many people are working for Aramark on [its] own grounds,” Sutherland said. “For U.Va. to say we’re all part of one community … show that we’re part of one community. Include the hundreds of hundreds of workers who make U.Va what it is for the students and for to make the school run.”
Event-organizer Catherine Labgold, a graduate Arts & Sciences student, expressed her appreciation for the receptive audiences who valued the exhibit’s purpose of including workers in the University community.
“I was proud to see so many individuals leave the exhibit with a better of understanding of many U.Va. workers experience,” Labgold said. “I hope these worker stories will continue to be shared, urging us all to think critically about how we can express respect, support and appreciation for our fellow working 'Hoos here on Grounds.
The University administration did not respond to request for comment over the weekend.