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LWAC runs around with the UVa Living Wage Campaign
Apr 20, 2006
Here I am, in the belly of the beast, well at least one of them. I’ve spent the last week and a half in Charlottesville, Virginia working with the students in the Living Wage Campaign at the University of Virginia. It’s been an absolutely incredible experience so far and I feel that there is still so much more to come. The sit-in that happened in the last week has galvanized the campus in a way that people tell me is unprecedented on these ‘grounds’. It’s both exhilarating and exhausting. I haven’t gotten much sleep but it’s not stopping me, I am consistently inspired to keep going by the students here, those involved for a long time as well as those who have just gotten involved in the last week.
Over the last couple of days, I learned that the administration here would rather arrest its students than pay its workers a living wage. We all thought that we were in the middle of good faith negotiations and so when the 17 were arrested, living wagers on the grounds and across the community were shocked. President Casteen likes to paint it as if he was making all sorts of commitments and compromises when in fact, his proposal provided no concrete change. It did however say that he would introduce the students to legislators in Richmond so that the students could present ‘their issue’. With this small statement, Casteen showed that he has no intention to make living wage his issue or a priority for the university.
Post sit-in, there is a lot happening on campus; for example, yesterday there was a teach-in organized by faculty, which drew a crowd of 150 people. 10 different professors and members of the university community presented on various aspects of the living wage campaign, including the former chair of the Politics department and the president of SUUVA (the staff union of UVA) among others. Tomorrow on Friday, Casteen is delivering his State of the University Address; the Living Wage Campaign will be there to give him a nice visual demonstration of how many people support a living wage. The students will also be holding a press conference in the morning to come forward and address issues surrounding the sit-in, negotiations, the arrest as well as present the post sit-in plan.
So, what's this all about? The issue is a bit complicated here or well at least President Casteen would like to make you think it is. There are some aspects of Virginia code that could be interpreted as saying that a locality (including a unviersity) cannot implement a living wage ordinance. But actually, three localities in Virginia have passed living wage ordinances: Charlottesvile, Arlington and Alexandria. Only one was taken to court but even in front of a judge, the ordinance was upheld. Casteen could absolutely follow their lead and in turn step forward as a leader among other university presidents by implementing a living wage policy at UVa. If unwilling to do so, he in turn could work to find creative ways to address the problem of poverty on campus (the students in fact have presented him with a variety of strategies). But instead he has made it clear that paying a living wage is not one of his priorities.
The nuances of organizing at a public school are becoming more and more apparent to me but all the while I am learning so much from being here. I couldn't really imagine a better way to end an already incredible year at LWAC. This campaign is growing and will not go away this semester but will continue to take this university and all of its traditions head-on long into the future.