After several dormant years, the Living Wage campaign returned to Charlottesville this spring. Yet the chants and sit-ins are just the latest in a history of labor activism that goes back almost 10 years.—Nell Boeschenstein and John Borgmeyer
1996: The Living Wage Campaign scores its first victory when Baltimore enacts the first “living wage” law, requiring all City contract workers be paid $6.10 per hour. Intensifying the need: Bill Clinton’s signature on the “welfare reform” bill, which limits welfare eligibility to five years. Baltimore’s $6.10 minimum aims to lift a family of four over the federal poverty level; an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 workers were affected. Two years earlier, a coalition of clergy and labor had joined forces on the issue after churches noted significant increases in the use of their soup kitchens.
1997: The Living Wage movement begins stirring in Charlottesville when UVA faculty and students form the Labor Action Group (LAG), bringing several wage activists to campus for a teach-in. The lineup includes Ralph Nader, union bigwig Richard Trumka and houskeeping advocate Barbara Prear.
September 1998: The first college campus Living Wage campaign to make national headlines begins at Harvard just as the City of Boston enacts a “living wage” ordinance of $8.43. The Harvard campaign intensifies for three years, culminating in April and May 2001 when 50 students take over the president’s office for three weeks. Hundreds pitch tents in Harvard Yard in solidarity. Eight months later Harvard President Lawrence Summers begins negotiations with janitors and food workers, eventually raising janitorial hourly wages to $11.35 and food service employees’ rate to $10.85. The campaign serves as the blueprint for future actions at Georgetown, UC Berkeley and UVA.
April 15, 1998: The Labor Action Group launches Charlottesville’s first Living Wage campaign (on tax day, no less). LAG demands UVA raise its base pay to at least $8 per hour from about $6.37. Orange “$8” buttons become ubiquitous around campus, while UVA president John Casteen asserts, for the first of many times, that he does not have authority to raise wages without approval from the Virginia General Assembly, which contributes approximately 11 percent of UVA’s budget.
1999: Charlottesville City Council raises its base wage to $8 per hour for all full-time employees. In 2000, the City extends the provision to part-time employees. A year later, Council uses the Virginia Public Procurement Act to require anyone who contracts with the City to pay similar wages. In a letter to the City, former Virginia Attorney General Randolph Beales declares the City is not authorized to to do this, but Council passes the ordinance anyway. It has never been challenged. The City’s wage “living wage” ordinance stipulates that wages for contract workers be reviewed annually. Currently, the City’s minimum wage for part-time employees and contract workers is $9.36 per hour.
October 2000: In the fall, the “living wage” campaign commences direct action against local hotels, especially the Courtyard by Marriott on W. Main Street and the Omni on the Downtown Mall. Every Friday, protestors carrying signs that read “Honk for a Living Wage” line up outside the Courtyard by Marriott. In July 2001, protestors chain themselves to an Omni elevator; in September 2002, three protestors are arrested following a sit-in at the Marriott. In spring 2003, after more than 100 consecutive Friday-afternoon protests, hotel managers meet with Mayor Maurice Cox and agree to sponsor job training that would result in higher wages for some of the hotels’ lowest-paid workers. The actions at the hotels cease.
May 2001: After first appearing in article form in Harper’s Magazine, Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America brings the issue to the best-seller list. Ehrenreich worked across the U.S. as a hotel maid, Wal-Mart sales clerk and nursing home aide in order to examine the impact of Clinton’s “welfare reform” on low-wage workers. Ehrenreich concluded that holding a single minimum-wage job doesn’t cut it if you want a roof over your head, and argued that the well-worn “too lazy to work” and “jobs defeat poverty” mantras were largely meaningless. The book meets with praise for its courage and empathy, as well as scorn for its pro-”living wage” agenda and general air of self-righteousness.
May 2001: After a UVA Medical Center worker is accused of rape, he is discovered to be a convicted felon. In response, UVA fires nine other convicted felons on staff who have been accused of nothing. Five are rehired and the others win cash settlements. The incident prompts LAG (the “living wage” group first assembled in 1997) to organize a UVA staff union. After affiliating with the Communication Workers of America, the Staff Union at UVA (SUUVA) opens a Charlottesville office in May 2002.
January 2005: The Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors reports that, for the sixth consecutive year, area housing prices have set new records, continuing the boom that began in the mid-’90s. Traditionally working-class neighborhoods see an influx of higher-income families, with the ensuing gentrification leading to skyrocketing property assessments and taxes. Since 1996, Charlottesville’s median home price has risen by more than $125,000, nearly triple the national rate.
March 2006: President John Casteen announces that UVA plans to raise its base hourly pay by 49 cents, to $9.37—exactly one cent above the City’s wage. According to the University, benefits add another $3.29 per hour. UVA’s “living wage” advocates have been seeking an hourly wage of $10.72. (Like their peers in other cities, they do not count benefits in their calculations, saying that they are “not fungible.”) The campus campaign urges Casteen “to show leadership on this issue…and ensure that no University employee is paid a poverty wage.” The student activists continue to crusade for $10.72 per hour.
April 2006: Student organizers demand an hourly wage of $10.72, tying it to current federal poverty levels for a family of four in Charlottesville. Rallies outside the Rotunda escalate when 17 students enter Madison Hall, where Casteen’s office is located, for a sit-in. While more than 100 students come out to support the sit-in, inflammatory rhetoric demonizing Casteen alienates other students, prompting wide-ranging campus discussion of the issue. The sit-in ends after four days with the arrests of the 17 students, who will have their day in court on May 5.