‘Living wage’ debate
Student protest sparks passion, disagreement and a whole lot of questions
Protests by student members of the Living Wage Campaign at U.Va. have been under way since February. This special report is intended to provide a balanced overview of the issues and of the differing perspectives of those involved. The goal is to give readers sufficient information to sort through the rhetoric and more fully to understand the complexity of the issues. — The Editors
Excerpts from "A Letter from President Casteen Concerning Competitive Compensation at the University," April 20, 2006
Timeline of Recent Events
|Comparing U.Va. & Living Wage Campaign Calculations
|U.Va. Minimum Hiring Rate
|LWC ‘Living Wage’ Rate
|Minimum hourly rate $9.37
|Health care benefit $1.44
|Other necessities $1.03
|Subtotal, with health care $10.81
|Retirement benefit $0.86
|Health care $1.16
|Social security $0.72
|Other insurance* $0.27
|Total wage package $12.66
|* Worker’s compensation, unemployment, Virginia short-term disability and Virginia Retirement System life insurance
||(Excerpted from the February 2006 Living Wage Campaign report “Keeping Our Promise”)
A more complete chronology of events, plus supporting documents and statistics, can be found on the University’s Web site at http://www.virginia.edu/wages. To examine the events, documents and statistics presented by the Living Wage Campaign, visit http://uvalivingwage.net.
By Kathleen D. Valenzi
Members of a student group campaigning to increase the pay rate for U.Va.’s lowest-paid employees to what they describe as a “living wage” conducted a four-day sit-in in the lobby of Madison Hall this month.
The sit-in, which ended with the arrest of the 17 students for trespassing, was the latest in a series of events conducted by the Living Wage Campaign since its members issued a report in February calling for the University to set its entry level rate at $10.72 per hour, the amount that they have said constitutes the minimum hourly rate necessary for an employee to be able to pay basic monthly necessities, like housing, food and health care, in Charlottesville.
The U.Va. students are part of a national movement, the Living Wage Action Campaign, which has seen similar protests being conducted this spring at the University of Vermont, the University of Miami, Swarthmore College and the University of Notre Dame, among others.
A little more than a month before the sit-in, U.Va. President John T. Casteen III had announced an increase in the University’s minimum hiring rate from $8.88 an hour to $9.37 an hour based on a recent market analysis of local wages.
Photos by Dan Addison
|Seventeen student members of the Living Wage Campaign staged a sit-in at the lobby of Madison Hall on April 12. Here, they watch a rally taking place outside the building.
In a letter announcing that increase, Casteen wrote: “The University of Virginia values all of its employees and its contractors’ employees and respects the work done by all who contribute to teaching, research and public service here. These persons … deserve the best compensation we can provide consistent with the law and relevant market conditions. They deserve to be rewarded individually for superior performance.”
While representatives of the student group termed that increase “an important first step,” they continued to press for the $10.72 rate for both classified employees and employees working for private businesses contracting with the University.
Calculating a ‘living wage’
In calculating the living wage for the Charlottesville area, the student protesters use a “basic needs budget calculator” developed by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization established to broaden discussions about economic policy so that they include the interests of low- and middle-income workers.
The $10.72 figure uses a “market basket” approach, which tallies the cost of basic necessities to arrive at the minimum annual income needed to keep a Charlottesville-based family of four out of poverty. According to the students’ report, that figure is currently $44,592 per year for a family of four with two wage earners, and includes the cost of “taxes, other necessities, transportation, health care, food, housing and child care.”
University administrators, on the other hand, use a “market survey” approach to determining wage rates, which led to the latest increase of the minimum hiring rate from $8.88 to $9.37. (The federal minimum rate is $5.15 an hour, and the state’s entry-level rate for classified employees is $6.83.)
U.Va.’s $9.37 is not only one of the highest minimum hiring rates in the region and among state institutions, but the figure does not include any benefits, such as health care. Were the University to add the $1.44 hourly cost of employer-provided health care benefits to the $9.37 minimum hiring rate, the resulting total of $10.81 would exceed by 9 cents the protesters’ $10.72 living-wage demand.
As Casteen has pointed out both in his meetings with students and in a letter to the community that followed the sit-in, the flaw in the living-wage methodology is that the calculations used to get a figure of $10.72 an hour counts health care costs twice — both in the base wage rate and, again, in the employer-paid health benefit. When all other benefits, including insurance and pension, are added to the U.Va. wage package, that $9.37 figure becomes $12.66 an hour (see chart).
The students have countered by arguing that benefits, though necessary, are not a substitute for higher wages. “You can’t buy food or diapers with health benefits,” they wrote in a statement issued March 24. “People also have health care expenses that are not covered by any benefits plan, no matter how ‘excellent,’ and which must be paid out-of-pocket.”
This argument doesn’t resonate with William R. Johnson, professor of economics. “U.Va. offers very good benefits, especially health benefits, which are generally hard for people in lower-wage jobs to get,” Johnson said. “In the local news coverage of the Living Wage Campaign, a spokeswoman for the campaign was quoted as saying that benefits don’t enter into their calculations about compensation. Benefits are valuable. Dismissing them totally struck me as odd.”
The issue of contract employees
The protest isn’t only about minimum hiring rates. Student protesters argue that the University not only has a moral obligation to pay a living wage to its classified employees, but also to require private contractors doing business with the University to pay such a wage to any of their employees who work at U.Va. The students point to the City of Charlottesville, which adopted a living wage policy in November 2001 for both city and contract workers. (At present, the city’s “living wage rate” is $9.36, a penny less than the University’s minimum hiring rate.)
U.Va. administrators, citing a March 21 letter from the state’s attorney general, say they have no legal authority to require that private contractors pay a living wage — either as a condition of receiving a procurement contract under the terms of the Public Procurement Act, or as the result of the Board of Visitors’ general regulatory authority.
The students dismiss the attorney general’s letter as opinion that is open for legal interpretation. They contend that the act’s “best value” provision does give U.Va. the latitude to insist on a living wage when negotiating a contract. They say the act names a variety of entities, including universities, and gives those entities the right to accept a higher bid if the higher bid is believed, in turn, to give the entity the best value for the money spent — the presumption being that contract employees who are paid well will arguably do a better job (provide better value) than contract employees who are not paid as well.
Their argument presumes that localities like the City of Charlotteville and state agencies like the University of Virginia are comparable legal entities.
According to U.Va. law professor Rip Verkerke, director of the Program for Employment and Labor Law Studies, “U.Va.’s relationship with the state is quite different than that of the City of Charlottesville with respect to the commonwealth. An agency — in this case the University — is a direct instrumentality of the state and therefore subject to the immediate direction of the commonwealth and, by extension, the governor, as the chief of the executive branch. In other words, the governor is our boss.”
Verkerke added that U.Va. may be correct “that the General Assembly did not intend for the ‘best value’ provision of the Public Procurement Act to authorize living wage ordinances or other similar requirements. The opinion letter concludes that a living wage (along with health insurance, vacations, labor relations and hiring practices) are matters of ‘social, political or economic policy’ and thus unrelated to ‘the needs of a public body or the quality of the product or services.’”
Even if there is room for interpretation of the act, however, “the City of Charlottesville is more entitled to express its interpretation … than is the University as an instrumentality of the state,” Verkerke said. “There is a distinction there.”
How to test that distinction? One way — a suggestion made by Casteen to the student protesters during the sit-in — would be for someone to file a lawsuit on behalf of individuals who are “aggrieved by [the attorney general’s] opinion letter and its interpretation,” Verkerke said. “The suit would use the judicial process to … get an authoritative interpretation of the Virginia Public Procurement Act.”
According to Verkerke, the University itself can’t file this type of suit because it isn’t an aggrieved party.
“My own sense of the matter is that the University would be on thin ice if it directly flouted a firmly expressed directive from the governor’s office,” he summed up. “I am less certain about acting contrary to the firmly expressed legal ‘opinion’ of the attorney general. To my mind, this is the crux of the matter.”
Another complication is that the term “contract employee” covers a wide cross-section of individuals. Some contract employees, such as housekeepers, may work part-time at U.Va. and part-time at one or more other places during any given week. The question becomes, would a contract worker only receive U.Va.’s minimum hiring rate for days (or hours of the day) spent working specifically for U.Va.?
Carmen Comsti, a fourth-year student from Woodbridge, Va., and one of the 17 students who engaged in the Madison Hall sit-in, said that the contract employees the Living Wage Campaign is most concerned with are the “full-time service employees” within U.Va.’s labor force.
“As I know it,” Comsti said, “most of the contract workers who work only a day or two are already making above a living wage. We’re primarily interested in helping full-time contract workers who provide janitorial services, or work in the dining halls, or facilities management.”
After several weeks of rallies on the issue, on the morning of April 12, 17 student members of the Living Wage Campaign — carrying sleeping bags and backpacks containing books, laptops, cell phones and a several-day supply of food — took up temporary residence on the lobby floor of Madison Hall.
“We are sitting in because we have exhausted every avenue of dialogue with the administration that could lead to a living wage,” they said in a prepared statement. “Our basic demand remains the same as always: All University employees, whether directly employed or hired through outside firms, must be paid a living wage of at least $10.72 per hour before benefits, adjusted at least annually to inflation and the cost of living in Charlottesville.”
The sit-in and the initial stream of reporters who wanted to interview the students disrupted daily operations, which in turn caused administrators to restrict access to the building to visitors with prior appointments. On the sit-in’s first day, anthropology professor Wende Marshall was arrested for trespassing when she entered the building after being denied entry at the front door.
As the students occupied the lobby, rallies and a 24-hour vigil were held outside the building. More than a half-dozen tents were pitched on the front lawn of Madison Hall.
Explaining that while they respected the students’ right to protest, administrators chose not to provide amenities like wireless Internet access. The students were able to communicate through cell phones. They also had access to rest rooms and water.
Since students had brought food with them into the building, a decision also was made not to allow visitors to bring additional food. When a couple of professors, and the mother of one student involved in the sit-in brought food and textbooks to Madison Hall on the sit-in’s third day, the items were left outside.
Over the course of four days, Casteen met with the student protesters on three separate occasions and provided them with two sets of written communications. On the sit-in’s first night, he shared a preliminary response from the attorney general, which indicated that the University did not have authority to regulate the wages of contract employees.
Then, on Friday night, he responded to their request for a proposal with a document that offered to work jointly with the students on resolving disagreements over the methodology of their calculations and to support a “serious campaign” on the issue of wages for classified employees with the General Assembly. The president’s offer was contingent on the students agreeing to vacate Madison Hall and return to their studies or move their protest to some location that would not be disruptive to University business.
When the students voted to end the meeting at about 3 a.m., Casteen asked for a response to his proposal by 2 p.m. that afternoon. In response to a request for food by some of the students, the president asked University police to sort through the food that had been left outside Madison Hall, and to select enough of the nonperishable food to meet the students’ needs.
The next afternoon, at 3 p.m., Casteen and the students met for a third time. During that meeting, the students provided a document to which Casteen responded. At the meeting’s end, Casteen asked for a response to his proposal from earlier that morning and was told that the students unanimously had decided his proposal “did not merit” a response because it had made no concessions. At that point, it appeared to administrators that the group intended to stay on the floor in Madison Hall indefinitely.
Feeling that an impasse had been reached, Casteen expressed his hope that the students soon would leave the building.
At 7 p.m., U.Va. administrators notified student protesters that they would need to leave Madison Hall immediately or face arrest for trespassing. When the students declined to leave, all 17 were arrested and taken to the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.
“The University takes no pleasure in having to arrest its own students, but it was time for the disruption to come to an end,” Casteen said. *
Although Houston Wood, outgoing chairman of the Faculty Senate, has indicated that the senate has taken no formal position on the student protests, an April 11 letter to Casteen signed by 230 faculty members urged the president “to put the weight of upper administration behind the lately revived movement to institute a fair wage policy for full-time workers at the University.”
In the week following the student arrests, the Living Wage Campaign continued to conduct rallies and staged a teach-in. Speakers included a former City of Charlottesville vice mayor, a U.Va. classified employee who is a member of the Staff Union at UVA, and the president of SUUVA who has been actively involved in the Living Wage Campaign since its inception, as well as eight faculty members who addressed the student protest and “living wage” issue from a variety of perspectives.
Among the faculty speakers, history professor Tico Braun talked about why it is hard to speak about class in America; religious studies professor Heather Warren discussed the religious legacy on behalf of the living wage; and history and American studies professor Grace Hale spoke on the history of the local labor market.
Michael Smith, the Thomas C. Sorenson Professor of Policy and Social Thought, who talked about what the Living Wage Campaign was teaching the community about leadership, responsibility and trust, closed the teach-in with a call to action: “Let’s use our collective reason to do better,” he urged. “How can we move to reestablish trust? I challenge our leaders to engage the Living Wage Campaign in serious dialogue at the earliest moment.”
Not all faculty have supported the protest. “Living wage campaigns have a distorting effect on the market, according to academic economic literature,” Johnson of U.Va.’s economics department said. “There are some economic subtleties that have not been addressed by the organizers of the campaign. One of these is the issue of substitution: the people the organizers are trying to help may not be the ones who would benefit. If an employer had to pay a higher wage, he would want to get the best worker for the wage he had to pay. At a higher wage rate, the employer would have more workers to choose from and would select the best employees it could. In effect, some people who might have been hired at a lower wage would not be hired at a higher wage.”
Market Wage Campaign
A student group also formed on the other side of the issue. Fourth-year American Studies major and Lawn resident Karin Agness, of Indianapolis, organized the Market Wage Campaign in opposition to the Living Wage Campaign after a Student Council-sponsored referendum ballot on the living wage passed on March 4 with 77.5 percent of the students who voted.
“After the referendum ballot, and after President Casteen raised the minimum wage to $9.37 on March 7, we realized that the Living Wage Campaign had momentum,” Agness said. “Myself and many other students were frustrated that the Living Wage Campaign had been so successful in pushing its agenda forward without much discussion about the issues at hand and how this would affect low-income workers overall.”
The day of the sit-in, Market Wage Campaign supporters set up a table marked “Free Market Zone” at the site of the Living Wage Campaign rally and passed out leaflets describing the possible economic consequences of a living wage.
Agness believes the student protesters are pushing their agenda forward with passion more than with reason. “We care just as much about these workers as they do, but we don’t think imposing an artificially high wage floor is the best way to help the lowest-wage workers,” she said. “Rather than engage in tactics like sit-ins and rallies, we’d like to have them prove their point through a solid debate on the economics. We think economic theory is on our side.”
What about the employees?
A constituency noticeably absent from the living-wage debate has been those employees whom the student protesters intend to serve through their advocacy. The protesters claim the employees are afraid to speak up out of fear of losing their jobs.
Employees interviewed for this article admitted some reluctance to go on the record, but said their lack of visibility is more the product of practicality: they are too busy working.
Mary Russell, co-secretary of the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Employee Communication Council, said that while she hasn’t received any calls from her constituents in Printing and Copying Services, she thinks employees are sympathetic to the students for what they are trying to do but also that employees feel the University tried to give them an opportunity to have their say.
“Generally, what I’m hearing has more of the sense that employees haven’t been well informed about the issues,” she said.
There also seemed to be some curiosity, she said, about why the students were going to so much trouble on behalf of contract workers when those workers didn’t seem to be engaged in the protest.
Becky Marshall, chairwoman of the Provost Employee Communication Council, said that the only call she had received from a constituent involved a general concern among classified employees at the School of Continuing and Professional Studies: If the minimum wage goes up, what will have to be eliminated to pay for the increase?
“People are smart enough to realize that there is only so much money to go around, and clearly something will have to give to make a living wage happen,” Marshall said.
The student protesters have argued that with an endowment valued at $2 billion in 2004, U.Va. has plenty of money to elevate the wages of the approximately 935 employees (a number that includes full-time salaried, part-time salaried, and non-student wage employees in both the academic and medical divisions) who currently make less than the $10.72 target the Living Wage Campaign has set.
Marshall recognizes that’s not entirely true. Having become more informed about such matters through her Employee Council role, she said that while some private gifts have been used to increase employee salaries, more often than not, the money held in the endowment is designated for specified purposes.
Allocations from the unrestricted endowment have been designated for a number of University priorities, such as Access UVa, the University’s financial aid program.
One classified employee, who earns $9.37 per hour as a member of the housekeeping staff, and who wished to remain anonymous, admitted that she and her colleagues “needed a little more money.” A lot of people that she knows work two jobs, including herself. "A lot are single moms, and there are so many bills to pay.”
At the same time, she added, the University does so many good things for employees, like providing good fringe benefits, including time off, dental and eye care, and educational benefits. Last year those educational benefits paid off for her when she earned her General Educational Development (GED) certificate. “So I’m not complaining,” she said.
Mo Nichols, a trades technician who worked as a temp with Facilities Management before starting there full-time in January 2005, admires what the students are doing. “It shows commitment and conviction, faith and dedication,” she said. “They are very knowledgeable and have a strong sense of justice.”
A lot of people she has talked to, Nichols said, don’t know much about the campaign. “They tell me that they want more money, but there is a lot of supposition that if our pay is raised, our health insurance or our parking fees will increase to compensate for the pay increase,” she said. “I don’t believe that, but a lot of people do.”
Nichols, who makes $9.45 an hour, said that the health benefits are a primary reason why people work for U.Va. — that, and the fact that the University is one of the most stable employers in the region.
Following the sit-in, Casteen invited the student protesters to come back to the table for further discussions. The students responded that they were willing to do so, and the meeting will be held today.
The students have indicated that if the administration will agree to a concrete timeframe for implementing a living wage, they will put together a committee of students, faculty, community members, low-wage workers and legal advisors to work with the administration and negotiate a mutually acceptable methodology for calculating what U.Va.’s minimum hiring rate should be.
In a letter to the community dated April 20, the president expressed his continuing desire to work with the students to persuade legislators that under-funding of the public payroll for classified workers in Virginia denies workers fair wages. He also agreed that an improved methodology may have a place in the system for determining entry-level wages, and said that he is “willing to try this approach.”
A larger context
At last week’s State of the University address, Casteen put the debate into a larger context. “This is a human institution,” he told the crowd of 300, including some 50 students wearing sashes bearing the words “Living Wage” and “$10.72.”
“It’s imperfect,” he continued. “All, to my knowledge, are.
“At the same time, it’s a work in progress. I have learned — I hope you have learned — in profound ways, from the arguments made by student protesters in the last semester or so. Their arguments are, frankly, vastly more advanced, vastly more usable than arguments made in prior years by anyone.
“We need to understand whether there is to be a devolution of responsibility for controlling poverty from the government to individual employers. We need to understand the nature of the public mandate; the General Assembly needs to take positions; it needs to declare what the law is to be.
“As we do that, I urge you to see it, as I’ve come to see it see it, as a source of strength. The demographics of our workforce — classified employees, faculty, and so on — tell a story about an opportunity. They say that the capacity to make dramatic differences in people’s lives are out there and not far away.
“The opportunities for advancement as employees take advantage of the educational programs that we offer; the opportunities for better and fair compensation; and the opportunities for impact on the world around us are larger at this point than at any time in my recollection or knowledge.
“That’s the job. That’s what we do for the future.” V
|Michael J. Smith • Thomas C. Sorensen Professor and Director, Program in Political and Social Thought
Inside UVA: We are aware that some of the activists are your students. What is it about them that predisposes them toward taking on a large social cause such as the Living Wage Campaign?
Smith: The students I know [who are participating] are among my most dedicated and highest-achieving. They have taken my class on human rights. They have studied the history of civil and human rights movements with Professor Bond. They have studied the history of the United States and of revolutionary movements abroad. And they have sought to understand social movements in theory and practice. Whence comes their passion? I think they seek consistency, and they simply take their ideas and commitment to social justice remarkably seriously.
IUVA: Clearly, these young people feel a lot of passion and commitment — of the sort that perhaps hasn’t been seen on Grounds since students advocated for divestiture of investments in South Africa in the 1980s. Are we witnessing a new era?
Smith: I’ve noticed a real increase in student social activism in the last five to eight years. We saw this in the Students against Sweatshops group several years ago; with the activism of African-American students in the Minority Rights Coalition that helped to elect Daisy Lundy as Student Council president; with the continuing efforts by a determined group of students to raise awareness about the genocide in Darfur; and with the Children of War programs of the past several years. And then, of course, there is the extraordinary outpouring of volunteerism in the wake of the Asian tsunami and [Hurricane] Katrina. Many in this generation of students focus on concrete efforts to make an achievable difference. This distinguishes them, I think, from the late-1960s’ radicals who wanted, somehow, to bring down “the system.” This group looks to the African-American Civil Rights movement for its inspiration.
These students are less deferential than their U.Va. counterparts of 10 or more years ago. One of the problems I’ve observed in the process leading up to the sit-in is an impatience, even annoyance, among our top administrators with this new assertiveness. Expecting (and quite often getting) deference to their authority in most of their encounters, they experience this new assertiveness among students as rudeness. The students won’t simply give up when someone in authority tells them, in effect, “Thank you very much for your concern. We’ll keep it mind, but there are many complexities you don’t understand. Now go away.” They want to understand these complexities and question assumptions.
IUVA: Would you share your personal views on what the activists are accomplishing as a result of recent events — not only on behalf of the workers for whom they are advocating, but also on behalf of the institution in general? What do you suppose observers will consider to be their legacy 10 years from now?
Smith: I believe these students are acting as the conscience to the institution, and I applaud their efforts. ...The students felt that they had to do something dramatic to be heard.
It’s my hope that we can re-establish dialogue, and some level of trust, and move forward to addressing the underlying issue. We — the students included — all understand that the University cannot solve the problem of rising inequality of wealth and income in this country on its own: but the students have challenged us to think harder about the values we express in the way we pay and treat the most vulnerable members of the University community.
As for the legacy, well, 10 years is far longer than I’d dare to predict about anything! But I do think these events mark a watershed in a newly assertive student activism, and we will remember their commitment and willingness to sacrifice for their beliefs.
As I said to a group of prospective students here in recent weeks, no one can say with any accuracy that U.Va. is a “party school”; our students are engaged intellectually, they volunteer in an extraordinary range of activities, and they have proven that they care deeply about issues of social justice. They want to make a difference.
Isn’t this exactly what a university is about?
|Edgar O. Olsen • Professor Of Economics
Inside UVA: Have your students been following the Living Wage Campaign?
Olsen: Many have followed it, and recently in my Econ 305 class, Economics of Welfare Reform, I asked my students to collect relevant information needed to assess the proposed living wage. They are now in a better position to have informed opinions.
IUVA: What is your view of the living wage proposal?
Olsen: It is a bad way to go about seeking social justice. A better way is through good government policy. Social justice is what our welfare programs are all about. As a country, we already have programs in place to support social justice that were created by our elected representatives and funded by working people at all levels of society. Ensuring a minimum standard of living is an appropriate role for government, but not for a private employer. Our federal and state governments disburse about $600 billion in welfare assistance annually to our country’s poorest families.
These programs include: Medicaid, a program that helps low-income people obtain medical care; food assistance programs, such as the Food Stamp Program, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program and the National School Lunch Program; housing programs, such as public housing, housing vouchers and subsidized private housing projects; and cash assistance programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Security Income and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).
One reason that government programs are a superior solution to the problem of insuring a minimum standard of living for all citizens is that, unlike the living wage proposal, they adjust benefits to account for differences in family composition. If the proposed living wage were appropriate for a four-person family with two full-time earners, it would be deficient for a family with one earner and three children and excessive for a family with two earners and one child.
IUVA: As an economist, are there issues that you believe are important but that you haven’t seen discussed in the public debate about a living wage?
Olsen: Yes. Why is there this unquestioning acceptance of the numbers for the cost of living from the Economic Policy Institute? To take one example, the Economic Policy Institute includes $744 a month for housing in its 2005 budget. That number is the so-called Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a two-bedroom apartment in Charlottesville in the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Voucher Program. Since the budget refers to a four-person household with two children, two bedrooms are entirely appropriate. The issue is the appropriateness of the quality of the unit. Better units cost more, and the FMR is greater than the median rent of two-bedroom units. That is, more than half of Charlottesville residents living in two-bedroom units have lower rents. So the proponents of a $10.72 an hour minimum wage seem to be arguing that U.Va. should pay enough so that its lowest-paid workers can live in better-than-average rental housing.
IUVA: Do you have concerns about other aspects of the living wage calculation?
Olsen: It’s not just the housing figure used by the Economic Policy Institute that’s debatable. The institute uses $587 as the monthly food figure for its calculation. But that amount is far more than what is needed to meet the minimum daily dietary requirements of a family of four for a month. The health care calculation is arguable as well. In my view, the numbers used in this budget are not reasonable numbers.
IUVA: If U.Va. adopted the $10.72 figure, what would be the impact on the Charlottesville wage market?
Olsen: In the short term, there would be no impact. More people would want to work for U.Va., but U.Va. would not want to hire them. Over time, current workers paid the minimum wage would continue to leave their jobs for a variety of reasons. U.Va. would not replace all of those people. Instead it would make do with fewer lower-skilled workers because they would be more expensive. That’s what happened at Harvard, which implemented a higher minimum wage in response to a Living Wage Campaign.
The University might also contract out more jobs to independent companies. The contractors would offer market wages. So raising the minimum wage rate at U.Va. would reduce the number of low-skilled workers who are employed directly by the University and force more people to work for contractors offering market wages. Offering higher minimum wages would improve the pool of workers from which U.Va. could hire. Not all unskilled workers are equally industrious or skilled. With a higher wage, the University could hire better people. So, the long-term effect of raising the minimum cash wage to $10.72 would be to shrink the total number of minimum-wage jobs at U.Va., while enabling the University to hire more of the community’s better workers.
IUVA: Is there anything else you believe has been missing from the debate?
Olsen: Something the campaign hasn’t addressed is the source of funding to make these raises possible. The options are raising tuition and fees; cutting back elsewhere; or seeking more money from the General Assembly. Since the University’s administration already makes every reasonable effort to get state funding, the latter doesn’t strike me as a credible approach. So, someone in the U.Va. community would have to bear the burden of either of the other options.
The organizers of the Living Wage Campaign obviously care passionately about helping the poorest members of our community, and I would be the last person to discourage them from pursuing this goal. However, I think they should consider alternative means to this desirable end, such as volunteering to tutor students from the area’s poorest families and launching an effort to insure that those students’ families are taking advantage of the government programs that have been created to assist them. I hope that some U.Va. students will pursue careers in public policy and devote themselves to improving this country’s welfare system.
—Reported by Charlotte Crystal
|Excerpts from “A Letter from President Casteen Concerning Competitive Compensation at the University,” April 20, 2006
…Perhaps for rhetorical purposes, living wage advocates sometimes refer to “all employees.” The living wage methodology applies only to the lowest-wage group, not to employees generally. If applied to all employees, it would lower wages dramatically. The documents and statements mentioned here appear on the web at www.virginia.edu/wages
Competitive compensation. This is a controversy about how to compute wage rather than about what the wage should be. State agencies in Virginia use methodologies that are well known and easily tested….[The living wage] methodology, if shown reliable, may add value to the methods described above. It may even displace them for this one wage group. As used by the local living wage group, however, the methodology and computations embody fatal flaws, which the group who occupied Madison Hall acknowledged and offered to correct in the future as a “concession” during the discussion last weekend.
Moving forward. I believe that the living wage arguments deserve to be improved, heard, analyzed, and debated, that they deserve to be presented to State officials when the computations have been made credible, and that it is entirely possible that State officials may listen receptively despite this protest. As the students who talked to me on Saturday did, I think that the methodology can be improved. I am willing to solicit the assistance of economists qualified to take on this work as a voluntary commitment to the discussion.
In the end, this issue matters to all of us and to all Virginians because it is a matter of Virginia law and public policy….Laws change in two fundamental ways: legislative action and judicial action. That is, either the living wage advocates can persuade the General Assembly to change laws they dislike, or they can find constitutional grounds for litigation, and then sue, thus letting the courts determine what is lawful and what is not.
The former course of action makes the best sense to me. Occupying buildings strikes me as an improbable way to change laws. Yet working together, we may be able to persuade legislators that underfunding of the public payroll for classified workers in Virginia denies these workers fair wages, and perhaps even that an improved living wage methodology has a place in the system for determining entry-level wages. I am willing to try this approach, and I invite persons who favor the living wage methodology and who also believe in the rule of law to assume responsibility for advocating change to their elected representatives.
John T. Casteen III
4th-Year (American Studies & Anthropology)
Hometown: Woodbridge, Va.
Inside UVA: What motivated you and your fellow protesters to become involved with the Living Wage Campaign at U.Va.?
Comsti: My family is working class, so I understand the issues personally. Many of the other student involved also come from less than privileged backgrounds. I’ve had volunteer experiences in Charlottesville, as have the other students. We volunteer for the homeless shelter and food banks, and I was surprised to learn that U.Va. employees were being served by these programs. So I feel it’s an obligation for me to act upon these experiences. We are very committed to the low-income workers at U.Va.
Inside UVA: How did you and your fellow protesters meet and learn that you shared a common commitment?
Comsti: Contrary to popular opinion, we didn’t all attend the same class. I got involved with the Living Wage Campaign my first year. What happened this year is that we held a Living Wage Week in the fall. It attracted so many people who wanted to tackle the issue this year. I would say that prior to Living Wage Week the campaign was “less intentional” than it became after we found each other last semester. Everyone’s passions converged.
Inside UVA: What provoked the sit-in and how did you decide who would sit-in and who would stay outside?
Comsti: After we released our report on the living wage in February, we set up a meeting, held in late March, with John Casteen, Leonard Sandridge, Yoke San Reynolds, and the general counsel. We also met with Tom Farrell, rector of the Board of Visitors. Our concerns weren’t adequately addressed, and we saw no movement on the University’s position. The decision about whether or not to take part in the sit-in was made on a personal level. There were no strategic decisions. Both groups of students — those inside Madison Hall and those outside — were equally well-informed and passionate. We 17 were not the leaders of the campaign, because the campaign is larger than the sit-in itself.
Inside UVA: What happens going forward?
Comsti: We’re hoping President Casteen will meet with us again and that we can agree on concrete next steps. If we can, then we’ll begin to take those next steps. If we can’t, there are a lot of students and community members involved in the campaign who can carry on the effort when some of us graduate. Planning will continue through the summer.
Timeline of Recent Events
Feb. 21 — The Living Wage Campaign at U.Va. issues a report, “Keeping Our Promises: Toward a Living Wage at the University of Virginia,” which contains a resolution urging the University to adopt a “living wage” for both classified and contract employees.
Feb. 22 — Approximately 100 students, faculty and community members gather at the Rotunda; they call for U.Va.’s minimum hourly wage to be increased to $10.72.
March 3 — Administrators request a ruling from the Attorney General on whether or not the University has legal authority to set a minimum wage requirement for private contractors and vendors that do business with U.Va.
March 4 — 77.5 percent (or 5,112 of 6,598 student voters) pass a Student Council-sponsored referendum in support of “an indexed living wage for all direct and contract University employees.”
March 7 — President John T. Casteen III announces that U.Va. will increase its minimum hiring rate to $9.37 as the result of a market survey of local wages.
April 8 — Protesters gather outside the Rotunda during a Board of Visitors meeting to advocate for the $10.72 “living wage.”
April 12 — 17 student protesters begin a sit-in in the lobby of Madison Hall. They bring with them sleeping bags, laptops, cell phones and a supply of food.
1 p.m. — the Living Wage Coalition stages a rally in the front of the Rotunda, with NAACP chairman and U.Va. history professor Julian Bond, local clergy and student activists addressing the group.
4:30 p.m. — anthropology professor Wende Marshall is arrested for trespassing after entering Madison Hall, which by now has restricted access due to the sit-in, just as a rally and a 24-hour vigil are about to begin.
5:30 p.m. — when Madison Hall closes, students are requested to leave the building by Vice President for Student Affairs Pat Lampkin. When they refuse to leave, they are permitted to remain in the lobby overnight. Wireless service to the building is disconnected.
11 p.m. — Casteen meets with the 17 students in Madison Hall and delivers to them a statement along with a copy of a letter from Commonwealth of Virginia's Attorney General, advising the University that it does not have legal authority to set a minimum wage requirement for private contractors and vendors that do business with U.Va.
April l3 — A rally is held at 1 p.m. and at 4:45 p.m. outside Madison Hall, where several tents have been set up by protesters.
April 14 — More rallies are held; some faculty bring food and textbooks to Madison Hall for the student protesters still inside, but nothing is permitted into the building.
April 15 — 1 a.m. — Casteen holds a second meeting, lasting an hour and a half, with the students camped out at Madison Hall to discuss a proposal that he had sent to them shortly before midnight.
3 a.m. — nonperishable items from the faculty food offerings left on the steps of Madison Hall the day before are brought into the building and given to the students.
3 p.m. — Casteen meets again with student protesters who present him with a counterproposal to his April 12 statement. He responds to each point in the counterproposal, indicating what can and cannot be achieved. Casteen asks the students to respond to his latest proposal from earlier in the day. They decline and say that they unanimously decided his proposal did not merit a response. Believing an impasse has been reached, Casteen wishes the students well and urges them to leave the building soon.
7 p.m. – U.Va. administrators notify student protesters that they must leave Madison Hall or face arrest for criminal trespass. No students leave. Shortly thereafter, all 17 students are arrested and taken from Madison Hall to the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.
April 17 — Arrested students are released on $500 bond. Two rallies are held, including a 1 p.m. rally at which Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, is a featured speaker.
April 18 — Student protestors remove tents and signs from in front of Madison Hall at the request of the administration. A rally is held on the north steps of the Rotunda at 1 p.m.
April 19 — Twelve faculty members speak in support of the Living Wage Campaign at a public teach-in outside the Rotunda.
April 20 — Casteen sends a letter to the University community, detailing events of the last weekend and indicating future steps; a letter in support of a “living wage,” sent to Casteen and signed by 226 faculty, is made public.
April 21 — 11 a.m. — the Living Wage Campaign holds a press conference claiming police brutality and demanding that another meeting with Casteen occur before Friday, April 28.
Noon — Casteen delivers the State of the University address to 300 people, including 50 protestors who wear sashes in support of the Living Wage campaign and listen to Casteen's remarks.
1:15 p.m. — A teach-in sponsored by the campaign is held on the steps of Old Cabell Hall following the president's speech.