Skip to Content

President's Letter In the University of Virginia Magazine: 'Fair Wages'

Summer 2006

Springtime in Charlottesville this year has been the most splendid of all seasons, and also something else. Warm weather came and went twice before spring finally started. Some nights, temperatures dipped to 30 degrees, and then we had 80 degrees the next day; drought gave way to monsoon, then suddenly all things green and glorious came all at once—azaleas, dogwoods, bright tendrils of new ivy. In the same season, the "living wage" campaign returned, but in a new form. National labor unions, watching their historic base of industrial and governmental workers fade away, have found backing among some faculty members who want a different economy, and this year with a small, vocal student group. The professional activists have made students their front line—a matter covered repeatedly by the local papers. The core premise of the living wage campaign is that federal and state minimum wages are too low to support a family of four in this country. The methodology (an imaginary market basket for a theoretical family of four with one wage earner) works sometimes in some wage markets, and does not at other times in other wage markets. In some instances, it generates hourly wages lower than what we currently pay.

Rather than campaigning to have Congress and state legislators adjust the minimum wage, these activists now target universities, earlier privates but now also publics, including recently Vermont and U.Va., as well as Miami. In our case, the campaign targets both University employees, whose minimum wage now is $9.37 per hour plus benefits, and employees of contractors who work here. Its front line demands that the minimum wage be set at $10.72 plus benefits. (Full information on all of this appears at

Virginia law makes this hard to do. Virginia's right-to-work law, its law prohibiting collective bargaining for public employees, two legislative votes this year against meet-and-confer, and the state's Procurement Act stand between our activists and what they want.

Living-wage advocates have so far made little headway for several reasons. Our wage rates are high for this market and higher than state rates. Our starting wage ($9.37) is almost half again the state's rate of $6.85, and we compensate for Charlottesville's higher living cost. Adjusted for the regional cost of living, our lowest wage is higher (by roughly 30 percent) than comparable wages in Northern Virginia. GMU in Fairfax, for example, starts its lowest-skilled employees at $10.40 per hour. If GMU used our wage rate, but adjusted for its cost of living, its rate would be $14.01, or 135 percent of what GMU actually pays. We have offered to introduce these protesters to legislators and assist with their arithmetic (to get to $10.72, they had to double-count health insurance—once in the base rate, again in the employer-paid benefits); and offered to enlist economists to help with their argument. Nothing seemed to help. On April 12, some 17 began a sit-in in Madison Hall. Their demand was that I personally change both our own base wage and our contractors' base wages to the rate they advocate. Their demand statement asserted that I have this authority. In response, the attorney general let us give the students a draft opinion letter stating that I do not have this authority, that neither do the Rector and Visitors, and further that the protesters misconstrued the Procurement Act: -that we have no authority over contractors' wage rates. Our sitters-in had no proposal to put forward when they learned that their adult coaches had misled them. They asked for a proposal from me, and I provided one: with our help, get competent legal and economic advice; seek changes in the law by persuading the General Assembly; alternatively, find plausible grounds and sue. The sitters-in refused to discuss my proposal.

We met again later to review a rough draft proposal they put together. We talked about each point, and I identified what we can do and what we cannot do. I offered to help them fix their arithmetic and to seek faculty members competent in economics who might help them devise a workable market-basket analysis. As this conversation ended, I asked again for a response to my earlier proposal. The group's leader said that it was not worth a response. I left. With the impasse apparent, building administrators warned the students that they would have to leave or face arrest for criminal trespass, and subsequently police officers repeated the warning. None left. Arrests followed.

Some protesters have behaved reasonably; some have not. For 16 years, I have published my telephone at Carr's Hill so that parents with emergencies, students in trouble, and others who need help can find me. Our protesters posted the number on Web sites, and urged allies to call it day and night. After some ten nights of obscene and threatening calls, and specifically after eight cell phone calls from the porch of Madison Hall between 1:30 and 3:30 a.m., hours when the callers knew I was in the building because they saw me through windows, but when Betsy was at home, I gave up. The number is still in the book, but calls now go to the University police, who provide help as needed.

Hard issues teach lessons. One of our sitters-in hates the Constitution—said she does not recognize it as valid. An anthropology graduate student who wrote often about poverty writes also that he can't define it but knows it when he sees it. At least some students think that vandalizing Madison Hall's furniture (even kicking a leg off a couch), and resisting arrest are forms of peaceful protest. We worried a good bit about some of these protesters. Some seemed sick. Several spoke of embarrassment or confusion or inability to follow the issues. A painfully telling remark was made to a University employee who offered to help one leave and avoid arrest. "I can't leave," the student responded. "The people outside"—the watchers and cell phone users on the porch—"won't let me."

Other views are asserting themselves. Other students now say that they don't buy the protesters' argument, that they want to have their say before anyone decides anything. Here, Mr. Jefferson wrote, we will "tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." Error or not, this year's campaign seems to be about to encounter combat in the place where it belongs—the human mind.

We treasure our employees here. We do not pay "poverty wages." Wages here are higher than anything comparable in this market because of long-term, deliberate effort on the parts of Leonard Sandridge, Yoke San Reynolds and dedicated Board members to make the University what it is: the best place in Central Virginia to work.

John T. Casteen III, President
University of Virginia