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University of Virginia Students and Faculty Campaign for Living Wage 1997-2000
From 1997 to 2000, students at the University of Virginia held a campaign to raise the living wage from the lowest pay of $6.10 to $8.19. In June 1996, a year before the campaign began, the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity Employment Programs commissioned an investigation, called “The Muddy Floor Report,” that published statistics on racial bias in hiring and pay at UVa’s employment office. The report revealed that housekeeping staff had some of the lowest wages, a third of them qualified for food stamps, and most of them were women and/or African-American.
In the fall of 1997, students and faculty founded The Labor Action Group (LAG), and officially launched the “8.00 Campaign” on 15 April 1998, which came to be known simply as the Living Wage Campaign. The campaign goals were to achieve a living wage for all University of Virginia employees. UVa President, John Casteen, responded to the campaigners demands by saying that he did not have the authority to determine the wage of University workers, and that wage decisions belonged to the Virginia General Assembly, which contributed eleven percent of the university’s budget.
The most widely recognized action within the campaign was a teach-in on 15 April 1998. Susan Fraiman, English Professor at UVa, worked with the Labor Action Group to organize a teach-in called “Worker’s Rights are Civil Rights.” Over six hundred community members attended. Speakers included political activist Ralph Nader, Labor Leader Richard Trumka, and Chair of the University of North Carolina’s Housekeeper Association Barbra Prear. Students sold orange and blue “$8” buttons to raise awareness for the campaign. Both Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams and famous peace advocate, Bobby Muller wore “$8” buttons in solidarity with the campaign during a Nobel Peace Laureate Conference on campus.
LAG also created groups to discuss employment-related conflicts called Employment Councils. In 1999, Morrison Management Services fired Richelle Burress, a UVa hospital cafeteria cashier, for wearing an “$8” button. LAG got her job back by defending her right to free speech and eliciting community sympathy by publicising her story through campus and citywide newspaper articles. Shortly after, on 1 December 1999, LAG members held a rally with banners and signs to celebrate Burress’s reinstatement and emphasize free speech
The campaign won in October 2000, when the University’s Board of Visitors raised the lowest wage ($6.10) to $8.19 without acknowledging the campaign. The new policy only applied to low wage University sponsored workers, not the majority of workers on UVa’s campus. The new salary only applied to direct employees, and employees working for other companies (ie: dining companies, etc) contracted by the university continued to make minimum wage. Even so, the student run campaign achieved initial success for a period of time. This campaign may also have increased public awareness that the City of Charlottesville was not paying city workers a living wage. In 2000, Charlottesville officially declared itself a living wage city.