Greg Casar used to run on autopilot: classes, homework, activities, and back at it again the next day. Not anymore. “When I first visited UVA, I was taken aback by the beauty of this place, but I never thought about how much work it must take to build and maintain such a beautiful space,” he told a large audience in a mid-sized room in Newcomb Hall.
“I never thought about people coming in at 5 in the morning to get those overtime hours just to make ends meet.”
Casar was one of five panelists who chronicled early and recent efforts of students, faculty and staff to get University administration to pay all of its workers what they call a fair wage.
“What I want to do today is challenge myself and challenge everyone in this room—and my student peers in particular—to get off of autopilot,” said Casar.
As UVA English Professor Susan Fraiman told the audience, the living wage campaign at UVA is not a new concept. In fact, it dates back to the 1960s and 1970s. But it was not until 1998 with the creation of the Labor Action Group (LAG), formed by students, faculty and staff, that the movement resurfaced on UVA Grounds. And since then—when, according to Fraiman, UVA paid its employees about $6.50 an hour for an approximate annual salary of $12,000—every year or so, students rally to move the campaign forward.
This year, Casar and other members of Students and Workers United for a Living Wage are hopeful that a change at the helm of the University may mean a change for its employees. “It’s a new administration and I think the time to act is now,” Grace Hale, a history professor who moderated the forum, told the audience.
Students got ready for the possible shift. Back in March, Students and Workers United for a Living Wage sent a letter with about 60 signatures to then UVA President-elect Teresa Sullivan to solicit her help in the matter. “We hope to meet with President Sullivan very soon, but we have not heard back from her since we sent our last petition last semester,” Casar tells C-VILLE. “I really believe that this is something that can happen. We have heard from administrators who really support this, lots of faculty and students who think that a living wage is a right thing for this University to do.”
Although Fraiman says it is too early to tell where the new president stands on the issue, she says Sullivan’s background could be an asset to the movement. “It’s good that President Sullivan’s area of expertise is labor and she is quite aware of problems of unemployment and underemployment,” she tells C-VILLE. “I would love to think that she may even take the lead on this issue.”
Ultimately, members of the campaign are asking UVA to start paying its employees, contracted or not, $11.44 an hour, the same wage the City of Charlottesville pays its workers.
“If the University institutes a living wage for its lowest-paid employees, wages will also positively affect the rest of the community, because the University has so much power within the market,” Casar tells C-VILLE.
Currently, UVA’s rate is $10.14 an hour, $2.89 more per hour than the federal mandated minimum wage. According to UVA, an employee who makes $10.14 an hour with no dependents for health insurance benefits, receives additional benefits worth $7.08 an hour, totaling $17.22 an hour. There are currently 282 employees in the UVA Academic Division who earn less than $11.44 an hour.
According to the Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development, the cost of living in the Charlottesville is 4 percent above the national average. Most interesting, housing costs are 20 percent above the national average. A UVA employee who works 40 hours per week for $10.14 an hour makes about $20,000 per year.
Although UVA employees will receive a 3 percent bonus this year, Casar says it is important to keep the focus on a long-term goal.
“A lot of people are excited about the 3 percent bonus, but it’s a one-time bonus, and what’s important about the living wage is that people are guaranteed stability in their wages, that their wages won’t go down because of inflation,” says Casar.