On February 17, a group of students at the University of Virginia embarked on a hunger strike in “to protest the economic and social injustices perpetrated by the UVA administration against the vast majority of the University’s service-sector employees.” Although a living wage is 13 dollars per hour, the starting pay for many UVA employees is $10.65, egregious in itself but even more so when considers that its administrators make between $400,000-700,000 and the school’s basketball coach makes 1.7 million per year.
Two days after the strike began, Joseph Williams, a member of the school’s football team, joined the protest. In a column on Michaelmoore.com, he explained his personal reasons behind his decision:
“On a personal level, this cause is one that hits very close to home. As one of four children supported by a single mother, I have experienced many periods of economic hardship in my life. Growing up, I moved over 30 times – including various stays in homeless shelters, the homes of family friends, and church basements. As a result of these experiences, I know firsthand what the economic struggle is like for many of these underpaid workers. One UVA employee anonymously shared that though she works full time for the University, over 40 hours a week, her family was still forced to go without electricity for nearly 3 months, unable to pay for the rent, electric bill and other basic necessities on the meager wages she is paid by the University. Such stories are the reason that I and countless other Living Wage supporters have chosen to take up this cause and give a voice to the many University employees who often cannot speak up for fear of retaliation from the administration.”
Over the course of the week, countless faculty, community members and students Charlottesville campus have joined Williams and the other student protestors in voicing their discontent with the wage issues on campus. I had the opportunity to talk to Joseph six days into his hunger strike about the movement for fair pay and his involvement.
EBONY: What is the Living Wage Campaign about and why a hunger strike?
Joseph Williams: The Living Wage Campaign has been active and we have a number of demands, including a living wage for the majority of direct and contracted workers at Virginia. We also want to have an oversight board put in place so employees feel comfortable and safe speaking out. Currently a lot of employees supporting us anonymously; they are afraid to do so publicly. In the past, they have written up or been fired because of involvement with the campaign. For the past 14 years we have exhausted every tactic, so we decided to move forward with a hunger strike to pressure the administration to negotiate with us.
EBONY: What led you to get involved in the campaign?
JW: I have been involved with the Living Wage campaign for several years while at UVA although not (always) to the extent I am now. It really inspired me that they were willing to start a hunger strike because it revealed their seriousness, a willingness to their livelihoods and their bodies on the line for a cause that was bigger than them. Specifically, the cause spoke to me because I have been in a place similar to a lot of the workers in terms of economic struggles and hardships. To be at this university, to have such a position as a student, as a student-athlete, to have the spoils that come with being here, I had a responsibility to speak out for those who aren’t able to have the same things I have been enjoying, who have been systematically marginalized by the university administration.
EBONY: How are you feeling?
JW: It depends on when you are asking me. At the end of every day, I am tired. Dead tired by 7 or 8 PM everyday. I think everyone that involved is focused on the campaign as much as possible. I am nowhere near quitting. I am feeling alright.
EBONY: How many people are on strike?
JW: There are now 20. We started out with 12, who have been going 8 days. People have joined throughout the week
EBONY: What has been the response from fellow students?
JW: There has been a small amount of backlash from those who think it is unfair to ask the university to pay workers more than they are worth on the free market, but the overwhelming majority of feedback has been positive.
EBONY: What has been the response from your coaches?
JW: They talked to me and more than anything else, it was about my health. They wanted to make sure I wasn’t jeopardizing my health or my rehab process (Williams is recovering from ankle surgery). At the same time, they didn’t appreciate the attention that was coming to the football team because of my involvement. We have a group of great coaches who are committed to the community but this is something I am very passionate about and they don’t necessarily share my passion.
EBONY: Doesn’t it bring positive attention to see the level of commitment and concern beyond self? Isn’t that a value we should cherish?
JW: I would agree but not everyone feels that way. Some people wish the campaign would go about this in a more political way, following the rules, but what they fail to consider is we have going at this for 14 years
EBONY: You wrote that UVA “has the prestige and high moral traditions of other top institutions, levels of inequality exist here today that are reminiscent of Jefferson’s days as a slave-master and plantation owner – with one anonymous employee even referring to the University’s Grounds as ‘the plantation.’” Can you talk about the symbolic importance of this struggle given that history?
JW: The parallel I was drawing on here was to emphasize how those at the top are exploiting the vast majority of people at the lowest level of our community. The inequality between these two groups is vast. Exploited members of our community are not able to speak for themselves for fear of retaliation – getting written up, getting fired. Obviously this isn’t slavery, but we need to look at the levels of domination, the fear of retaliation, the difficulty to force change, and the continued exploitation, mistreatment, and abuse.
EBONY: How does race and gender play out within this inequality?
JW: I think it is a major factor. It is easier to exploit these groups because of a lack of options and lack of political power. These are marginalized groups already so it is easy to ignore their situation
EBONY: What can others do to help your group and the workers secure just compensation?
JW: That is why we are here. We are not here for anything else; we are here for the benefit of the workers. If you are in Charlottesville community, come out to rallies. If you are not, email or phone the administration to expressed your disappointment, to express your support for living wages (Go here for more information). There is also a petition at change.org as well
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is author of After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press, spring 2012).