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Hunger Strike Over UVA Staff Wages

First, a little background: the cost of living in Charlottesville, Virginia is somewhat higher than in Hanover. As a result, the Poverty in America organization’s Living Wage Calculator suggests that a living wage for a single person in Charlottesville should be $8.87/hour; the comparable figure for Hanover is $8.37. That’s about a 6% difference. The minimum wage, as set by the Federal government, is $7.25/hour in both places.

It turns out that hundreds of contract workers at UVA are making only the $7.25/hour minimum wage. This fact has shocked the conscience of UVA football player Joseph Williams, and about a dozen other students. They have gone on a hunger strike. Williams wrote the following:

Our University seeks to distinguish itself as a caring community and prides itself on traditions of honor and student self-governance. However, in our “caring community,” hundreds of contract employees may make as little as $7.25/hour while six out of the top ten highest paid state employees in Virginia hold administrative positions at the University. Many employees, mostly women and African Americans, do not receive enough pay for their basic necessities to exist in Charlottesville, where the cost of living is nearly 10% higher than the national average…

In failing to implement a living wage for its lowest paid employees, the University of Virginia has also failed to uphold the moral standards to which it holds its students. We are engaging in this hunger strike to call attention to the administration’s moral hypocrisy and to finally produce results in the form of a Living Wage.

Let’s sidestep arguments about the free market’s abilities to set wages. These idealistic UVA kids are fighting to have the wages of the lowest-paid workers at UVA increased by a modest $1.62/hour.

Can we expect to see student hunger strikes any time soon at Dartmouth? All snide remarks aside about the new DDS meal plans already causing students to go hungry, it is worth looking to see if Dartmouth has attempted to squeeze its lowest paid workers like UVA does — undoubtedly as part of that school’s attempt to provide a fine education at a reasonable price. (This year UVA’s annual tuition, room and board for in-state students is $20,830, and for out-of-state students it is $45,824; Dartmouth presently charges $55,365).

Nope. Dartmouth seems to have decided that feeling good about its workers trumps any notion of education — and the administration’s sense of social justice is not going to be restrained by any ‘ol living wage calculation. Currently the lowest wage for unionized workers in Hanover is $15.82/hour, plus another $1.58/hour towards a worker’s pension (for workers over 35 years old), plus full family health benefits for only a modest contribution, and five weeks of vacation in the first year of employment. When you add all of that together, Dartmouth is paying its least skilled workers over triple what UVA pays — in an environment where the cost of living is lower. How generous of the College to spend students’ tuition money and alumni donations on hugely above-market salaries for the staff, even as the Kim administration cuts courses and other features of students’ education.

The overall money in question here amounts to tens of millions of dollars each year. As of the fall of 2011, Dartmouth had 3,175 non-faculty employees.

Note: And don’t think that members of the staff don’t know it. The College’s workers laugh under their collective breath that Dartmouth chooses to pay them over double what their friends make in the same jobs with other employers in the Upper Valley. They can’t quite figure out why Dartmouth does this, but they sure as heck aren’t going to refuse ideologically motivated wage setting.


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