UVA living wage advocates undeterred by arrests

Organizers of the Living Wage Campaign at the University of Virginia say that the arrests of 17 protestors this month did not hinder their campaign, but furthered awareness about the issue.

The students were arrested on trespassing charges after participating in a four-day sit-in at the office building of university president John Casteen.

The student-backed organization is stressing that the university raise its minimum wage for non-faculty university employees to $10.72 an hour. The group claims current wages are unlivable.

“We made it the number one issue at the university and Charlottesville,” said Zack Fields, a UVA junior and one of the sit-in participants. “It’s pretty clear that everyone understands that hundreds of UVA employees are living in poverty.”

Student organizers criticized Casteen and the school for being unwilling to negotiate directly with the protestors and work towards some kind of middle ground.

“It was disappointing because we weren’t able to have any compromises,” said Khalial Whithen, a fourth-year student and campaign organizer. “He (Casteen) wouldn’t directly address any common ground with us when we wanted some type of concrete agreement.”

The issue of what constitutes a fair wage for non-faculty employees has been debated at the school since 1998. Last month, UVA raised the minimum wage at the university from $8.88 to $9.37 in response to several campus demonstrations.

However, student organizers still feel that the wage is insufficient for an employee trying to support a family in Charlottesville, Va., where the school is located, and that the university has an obligation to make sure its employees can afford to live in the area.

“Because a living wage is a human right, the people that work in this community should be able to afford to live in this community,” said Sean Butterfield, a third-year organizer. “That’s a basic human right.”

Casteen ended a State of the University Address on April 21 by stating that university employees can take it upon themselves to receive a fair living wage.

“The opportunities for advancement as employees take advantage of the educational programs we offer,” he said. “The opportunities for better and fair compensation.are larger at this point than at any time in my recollection or knowledge.”

Despite the arrests and administrative resistance, organizers are working hard to keep the pressure on. The campaign was set to present a counter-proposal to school administrators on April 28 and is planning further demonstrations in coming weeks.
“We’re trying to keep the pressure on by asking the university for more meetings,” said Butterfield. “We also want to keep public interest and support.”

Public interest, organizers say, is something that the sit-in and arrests did prompt. Many from the community rallied outside the sit-in to discourage arrests.

Moreover, the arrests got the attention of national media, UVA alumni and other universities, which organizers hope will put even more pressure on the administration.

Activists said they are grateful for the attention the issue has received, because it is one that goes beyond the confines of the UVA campus.

“As human beings, we have a responsibility to one another,” Fields said. “Students walk by these beautiful tulips on our lawn everyday, but the people who are watering these flowers can’t even feed their families.”

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