UVA stands firm as hunger strike ends

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 On March 1, members of the Living Wage Campaign—all students at the University of Virginia—announced that they had ended a hunger strike that began nearly two weeks before. UVA president Teresa Sullivan had refused to meet their demands that the university raise its minimum wage for employees to $13 an hour. On February 18, 12 students started a fast —drinking only liquids—and while only two of the original fasters made it to the last of the month, they picked up 14 other participants during the protest, along with the support of social justice luminaries like Cornel West and Barbara Ehrenreich and national labor unions like the SEIU.

The university ultimately refused to budge on raising the $10.65 an hour rate they currently pay employees and on the wages of workers hired through contractors—some of whom make as little as $7.25 an hour. The issue of bettering employee wages has been a constant battle since the late ’80s. What were the hunger strikers trying to accomplish and what did they learn from their latest effort to bring the University to the negotiating table?

David Flood, a UVA archaeology grad student who fasted 10 days, and was the only striker to participate in two early morning meetings last week with UVA administrators—including President Teresa Sullivan—could only characterize their outcome as “deeply disappointing.”

“It’s frustrating to realize that going through a hunger strike isn’t enough to encourage the administration to make meaningful steps towards the living wage,” said recent UVA graduate Hunter Link, who made it 11 days without food. On day 9, his face was drawn and pale and he was dressed in head to toe winter clothing—despite the warmth of the afternoon sun—to try and ward off the cold flashes his fast induced.

As the strike ended, though, both Link and Flood found silver linings (perhaps it helped that they had both eaten by then). “The number of people that supported us and joined the campaign and the people that got interested and excited is a victory,” Link said. “If nothing else, we’ve absolutely raised the issue of employee treatment at a university that has historically seen incredibly little student activism,” added Flood.

Six years ago, 17 UVA students also took on the living wage issue by conducting a sit-in in the lobby of Madison Hall—UVA’s administration building—that lasted for four days and three nights. That foray resulted in their arrests for trespassing and little improvement in the pay for the bottom of UVA’s workforce.

Susan Fraiman, a UVA English literature professor, was a vocal supporter of those students, and this time around was part of the negotiating team that met with Sullivan and other top level administrators both mornings. “Even more than the 2006 sit-in, the hunger strike succeeded in bringing national media attention to the plight of low-wage workers at UVA,” she said.

On day 10—after the campaigners’ first meeting with Sullivan—throngs of local media joined a large crowd that cheered on Flood and other striking speakers at a rally in front of the Rotunda, before marching across the street and in through the front door of Madison Hall where they delivered their familiar chant: “What do we want? A living wage! When do we want it? Now!”

Perhaps university administrators were listening. Two days later, UVA Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Michael Strine issued a university wide e-mail wherein he pledged to study the university’s use of outsourced labor, a concession howbeit ever humble.

If UVA turned a largely deaf ear, Charlottesville’s City Council did not. In 2004, they began paying their employees the living wage of $11.44, even those hired through contractors. As a result of the campaign’s latest efforts, Charlottesville Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos confirmed that council plans to consider raising their base pay even higher, perhaps even to the $13 level the Living Wage Campaign demanded from UVA, at its next meeting.

Even so, that does little for those UVA employees on the bottom rung of the pay scale. In hindsight then, was a hunger fast successful or was it the latest in a series of disappointments?

“I think it was an excellent tactic,” said Brad Sayler, UVA faculty and another member of the campaign’s negotiating team. “It was totally non-violent and legal, the University had no way to stop it, and that was the beauty of it.”

At the same time, a hunger strike is typically carried out until the desired results are achieved. “Am I disappointed it didn’t continue? Boy, that’s a tough one,” Sayler said. “Part of me is and part of me isn’t.” Ultimately, he agreed with the students that the fast wasn’t going to accomplish anything more.

“I don’t think there was any one act we could’ve done to get a living wage,” Link explained, “but I know that the hunger strike has set the stage for future actions.”
Along those lines, Flood says the campaign will spend the next couple of weeks trying to capitalize on their momentum. Their prime goal is “to escalate this campaign,” he said. “[UVA] made some promises and we’re absolutely going to hold them to that.”

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