A (campus) living wage

Marketplace Staff Jun 2, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: If you happen to live near the University of Virginia, you’ve probably heard the phrase living wage. Some students there say campus workers aren’t getting paid one. A group of them organized a series of campus protests in support of higher pay. Seventeen students were arrested. Eventually, they were all found not guilty, and they even received a special faculty award for social responsibility. But as for a solution that satisfies both sides of the debate? It hasn’t been easy to come by. From Charlottesville, Virginia, Martha Woodroof reports.

MARTHA WOODROOF: Charlottesville, Va. glows with money. The town itself is only 50,000 — double that if you throw in Albemarle County — and it supports dealerships for BMW, Volvo, Audi, Porsche, Saab and Mercedes. There’s no obvious underbelly to the affluence, no rundown, low-rent part of town. So the folks who do the low-paid work at the university either commute or tuck their lives into odd corners.

Susan G. has worked for university housekeeping for 18 years and takes home $600 every two weeks. She rents a house that’s peeling paint on the southwest side of town. We talk in her lavender bedroom surrounded by dolls and framed sayings from the Bible.

WOODROOF: “Do you mind telling me how much your rent is?”

SUSAN G: “My rent is $400 a month.”

WOODROOF: “And then how much are your utilities?”

SUSAN G: “My utilities average out to be about $500 a month. Utilities is very high.”

WOODROOF: “Your take-home for the month is $1,200. That leaves $300 left to pay for everything.”

SUSAN G: “Yeah to buy, well you know, you gotta buy shampoo, you gotta have toilet
paper, you gotta have detergent to wash your clothes, things like that.”

WOODROOF: “Do you have a saving’s account?”

SUSAN G: “(Laughs) Five dollars in it. I can’t never seem to get it up. Like my grandkids, last year for Christmas, if I hadn’t bought ’em what I got’em, they wouldn’t a got anything.”

The grandkids are there because grandma’s UVA job’s a lot better than their mother’s job at Burger King. But Susan G. still must rely on siblings to eat out, and she’s never been away on vacation.

Of course, the capitalistic truth is, hard-working people everywhere struggle to pay their bills. But in Charlottesville, some university students have noticed this struggle and are demanding their university and its contractors pay all employees a living wage, which the Economic Policy Institute says is $10.72 an hour for a single person living in Charlottesville.

Third-year student Zach Fields spent Easter weekend in jail with 17 others, arrested for staging a sit-in at the university’s president’s office. He says the wage fight is a moral issue.

ZACH FIELDS: “This is really simply a question of whether or not the University administration is going to recognize the human rights of all its employees. It’s a simple question.”

Fields says it’s all fine and good that the university has great benefits and pays better hourly wages than some local businesses or even the city, it’s still not enough money for folks to live on decently.

The wage fight’s been bubbling up at UVA for 10 years. The current demand to require contractors to pay a living wage is particularly contentious. It’s not even entirely clear that it’s legal in Virginia, although several cities in the state do it.

A handful of UVA students say the whole thing is unwise economically. Second-year student Michelle Interbrink was counter-protesting at a recent Living Wage rally.

MICHELLE INTERBRINK: “Unless they’re going to take money from other programs or get more money from the state, more money from the students. They haven’t really shown a way this can happen without losing jobs.”

University President John Casteen says he cares a great deal about all UVA employees. Recently, Casteen authorized a base pay raise to $9.37 an hour, stimulated, he says, not by student pressure, but by market pressure.

And so far, that’s been it as far as the administration goes in terms of both raises and other substantive concessions to the students’ demands.

In Charlottesville, there’s evidence of surplus private income almost everywhere you look: Houses, cars, landscaping all look suitably understated and costly.

Susan G. and I move outside to sit on her front porch. We watch over her gaggle of grandkids and talk about the signs of affluence creeping onto her own block.

SUSAN G: “Well it does get richer and richer. And the University of Virginia gets richer and richer. They own about half of Charlottesville.”

WOODROOF: “What’s it like? How do you feel about that?”

SUSAN G: “Kind of feel belittled a little bit, you know? I feel like they could pay us more than what they what they do pay us. I feel like we work hard enough so we deserve it.”

Susan G’s eyes light up when she talks about the Living Wage campaign “her” students are waging for the hourly wage workers, but she’s been around UVA for a long time and knows how things work at the university. Susan G. says she’s not exactly optimistic that more money’s coming her way, but she’s hopeful.

In Charlottesville, I’m Martha Woodroof for Marketplace Money.

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