Starvation for wages
13 days in a decadeslong battle
Like many student-led movements, the Living Wage Campaign at UVA waxed and waned over the years as participants graduated and moved on. Born out of a national coalition of organized labor and academia, it began in 1998 with blue and orange buttons calling for starting pay of $8 an hour for the University’s lowest-paid employees—considered a living wage at the time and $1.50 more than UVA was paying.
The buttons soon became artifacts of the longest-running Living Wage Campaign on a college campus. As the cost of living rose, the intensity of activism did as well. It reached its crescendo in 2012 with what would become the highest-profile action of the 20-year movement: a hunger strike by 26 students. It lasted 13 days, garnered national media attention, and put a spotlight on a University not usually regarded as a hotbed of protest.
“When we really started getting loud with the campaign here, we had students say to us, ‘UVA students just don’t do activism. This isn’t going to take off here, the way it would someplace like [the University of California,] Berkeley,’” says Emily Filler (Grad ’17), a spokeswoman and organizer for the 2012 campaign.
“In general, I found it to be untrue. More people got involved than I thought. More people became present. We started with 12 strikers and we ended with 26.”
The 13th striker was a noteworthy addition: football player Joseph Williams (Col ’14). A walk-on member of the scout team who had played in just one game the previous year, Williams was by no means a star. But national media latched onto the story. ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, the Huffington Post, MSNBC, The Nation and other outlets all wrote about Williams the athlete/activist, a hybrid thought to be all but extinct, as sports had become more commercialized.
Williams was surprised by the attention.
“I was aware that athletes generally had a platform,” he says. “I definitely did not think that I had any kind of platform.”
His story was compelling. Homeless at times growing up, he moved 30 times between kindergarten and high school, and spent time in juvenile detention before graduating at 16 from Dominion High School in Sterling, Virginia, and winning an AccessUVa scholarship. A political and social thought major, Williams encountered students in his classes who were striking and joined them.
It was the off-season, when players add muscle. Williams was recovering from an ankle injury but was expected to maintain his nutrition and fitness like any other player.
Instead, he stopped eating.
The idea of a hunger strike grew out of an awareness of the history of the movement. Students involved were well acquainted with a 2006 sit-in, when the demand was for $10.72 an hour. The “UVA 17” holed up in Madison Hall for three days, while other students rallied outside. President John Casteen (Col ’65, Grad ’66, ’70) met with them in the wee hours on consecutive nights. At 7 p.m. on the third day, the students were arrested.
That outcome convinced organizers that a different tactic was needed in 2012.
“The sit-in didn’t last long. In some ways, its limitedness was what made us think about something like a hunger strike,” Filler says. “A hunger strike by definition is something where the longer it goes, the more the urgency grows.”
“It really was a tactic to get attention,” says Shaka Clark (Col ’13), one of the strike’s leaders: “It wasn’t even the best tactic. It was just what could we do to get the best attention.”
Months of planning went into the strike. A 75-page report titled “Keeping Our Promises” laid out the ethical, social, legal and economic arguments for paying a living wage. Updated from a report completed in 2006, it gave a history of a movement whose roots dated to a 1971 protest at the Rotunda organized by the Black Student Alliance.
The report also included worker testimonies, with names changed to protect potentially vulnerable staffers. From the beginning, getting workers to openly participate had been difficult. In November 1999, Richelle Burress, a cashier at the hospital cafeteria, was sent home for wearing an “$8” button. Though Burress was reinstated, some workers still feared retaliation.
Still, some joined the movement, says Susan Fraiman, an English professor who was one of the founders of the campaign in 1998.
Faculty members such as Fraiman and others were the connective tissue that bound different iterations of the campaign. They conducted teach-ins. They acted as advisers. Fraiman served on the bargaining committee that met with administrators in 2012.
“For many of us involved, it really had to do with our ethical beliefs and concern for our fellow workers at UVA,” she says.
Many of those were women and Black and brown workers who often worked multiple jobs to get by. As far back as 1996, the Muddy Floor Report, a study commissioned by the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, found correlations among race, gender and pay. Among housekeepers—half of whom were Black and a majority were women—roughly one-third were eligible for food stamps.
The city of Charlottesville adopted a living wage ordinance in 2000. UVA bumped up starting pay also—65 percent from 2006 to 2012—but the increases didn’t apply to contractors and remained shy of the living wage as calculated by the Economic Policy Institute. On Feb. 18, 2012, students launched the strike, demanding a starting wage of $13. UVA was paying $10.65.
They began with high hopes. President Teresa A. Sullivan, a sociologist and scholar of labor force demography, had written about the importance of a living wage for work to be meaningful and rewarding, calling it a “necessary condition for self-actualization.”
As president, however, Sullivan talked of budget realities and the need to evaluate changes in the salary structure “within the context of all of the University’s priorities and financial needs.”
Talks failed to move the needle. A meeting with Sullivan on the morning of Day 10 yielded no progress. That afternoon, strikers rallied in front of the Rotunda and then led 100-odd chanting students, community members and faculty across University Avenue to Madison Hall, where they were denied entry by UVA police. Strikers had been going about their academic and other business as much as possible. A video of the rally shows strikers bundled in winter gear as the occasional jogger passes by in shorts and a T-shirt on a mild March afternoon. They sounded raspy-voiced and tired.
The strike was wreaking physical havoc on everyone who participated, says striker Carl David Goette-Luciak (Col ’14, Batten ’16).
“I remember being cold all the time. Even if I was wearing five layers of clothing and sitting next to a fireplace.”
The football player Williams lost 12 pounds.
The strike ended after Day 13. Students declared victory, satisfied that they’d made their voices heard, and forced the University to acknowledge their campaign.
Williams would leave the football team that summer—not because of the strike but because he’d been accepted into the rigorous accelerated master’s program at the Batten School and didn’t think he could balance the two. Ultimately, he would leave the program and withdraw from school for a year. To pay the bills, he worked alongside the workers for whom he’d gone on strike. A couple of years after he graduated and moved to Los Angeles, one of them sent a $100 bill and a note of thanks, he says.
“To this day, I have no idea how they found me,” he says.
In May 2012, UVA raised its starting wage from $10.65 to $11.30. As with previous bumps, the administration did not acknowledge any role by the campaign.
The raise again did not apply to contractors and was not indexed to inflation. It would be another seven years before President James E. Ryan (Law ’92) announced a living wage of $15. The wage was later extended to 90 percent of University contractors.
Though there was nothing as high-profile as a hunger strike after 2012, the work of the Living Wage Campaign had continued in the interim.
Filler says that in retrospect, one of the legacies of the strike is that its demands weren’t really radical.
“Everything we were told was impossible, almost all of that is now [in place] at UVA, and it’s considered mainstream.”