Williams is one of 18 Virginia students participating in a hunger strike — now more than a week long — to protest the poor wages paid to many of the university’s contracted service employees. The strike, organized by the school’s Living Wage Campaign, began on February 17 with the goal of getting a living wage for underpaid employees. “I know first-hand what the economic struggle is like for many of these underpaid workers,” Williams wrote in an essay explaining his participation:
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. Although I am exhausted, hungry, dry-mouthed, and emotionally taxed, I believe it is my responsibility as a member of the University community, and even more as a member of the human race, to stand up and speak for those whose voices have been silenced and whose livelihoods are marginalized by the policies of the current University administration.
Williams decried the pay disparity between “hundreds of contract workers who may make as little as $7.25/hour” and the university’s top administrators. According to the essay, six of the state’s 10 highest-paid employees are administrators at Virginia. Williams also told the story of one employee who, despite working 40 hours a week, couldn’t afford to pay rent or utility bills.
“We have taken every conventional route towards this goal, garnered wide student, faculty and community support – yet our pleas have been consistently ignored and workers are still paid unjust wages,” Williams wrote. Perhaps the hunger strike and the national notoriety it has received is changing that, though. According to local news reports, University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan plans to meet with the strikers today.
According to Sullivan, the current starting wage for entry-level employees at Virginia is $10.65 an hour — with benefits included, it rises to $14.55 an hour. The university, Sullivan noted, has reduced the number of entry-level wage earners from 61 to 26 since last year. According to a 2006 attorney general ruling, UVA cannot require contractors to pay a living wage — such action must come from the state legislature.
The Living Wage Campaign has asked for base pay for all university employees to be raised to at least $13.00 (not including health benefits), and for the wage to be indexed to inflation. According to Sullivan, the university cannot afford such an increase — university employees haven’t seen pay raises for four years because of a state-wide pay freeze.