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LOCAL Commentary :: Labor & Class

UVA living wage continues

Charlottesville doesn't look like a town where 25 percent of the residents
live in poverty, but that's only because the poor people's housing is
cunningly hidden off the main roads, so the UVa alumni who pour in every
fall for Cavalier games don't have to see it. If you shop at the upscale
Barracks Road Shopping Center instead of Sam's Club, if you drive instead of
taking the buses, you could live here indefinitely thinking everything is
just fine, thank you, ma'am -- unaware of the desperation going on within a
two-mile radius.

But I know the true state of things in this lovely Blue Ridge mountain town,
because I've been hanging out with the Virginia Organizing Project folks
ever since I moved here in 2001 -- agitating for a living wage in the local
hotels as well as the university, which is the largest local employer.
Another one of my informants is a lady who works behind the deli counter at
Whole Foods, and the fact that she does so tells you a lot about wages at
UVa: She has another full-time job there as a housekeeper.
Last Friday I'm working my way down an ever-expanding to-do list when I get
a call from Joe Szakos, director of the Virginia Organizing Project, with
the news that 17 students are sitting in at a University of Virginia
administrative building, demanding a living wage for all UVa employees. The
fight over wages at UVa has been going on for about 15 years, but no one
expected something like this on the staid campus whose founder is still
referred as "Mr. Jefferson," as if he might come ambling around the lawn at
any moment. My assignment from Joe -- to call one of the sitters-in and
express my support -- moves right to the top of the to-do list.

Lauren, the woman whose cell phone I'm assigned to call, sounds a little
breathless and distracted. Or maybe she's just light-headed from hunger,
because, as she explains, the university administration has spitefully
blocked food deliveries to the protestors. I tell her I live in the
community and I'm thrilled with what she's doing.

Saturday I get a call from Victoria Young, a student member of the Living
Wage Campaign at UVa: Can I speak at a rally Monday? Sure, and I point out
that this is Dogwood Festival day in Charlottesville. I'm going to the
festival with my family and will pass out flyers if they have any. We talk a
long time -- about momentum, morale, and the arrogance of the
administration, which found $2 million to upgrade the football stadium this
year but can't manage to pay its workers decently. Victoria tells me that
she's learned more in the last week than she has in her three years at UVa,
and I wonder if the university understands what it's teaching her.

The Dogwood Festival turns out to be a pretty funky affair -- a few kiddy
rides and booths selling toxic treats like funnel cakes. It's beastly hot --
88 degrees -- even with the sugary shaved ice my granddaughter is eating
dripping on my legs. After 20 minutes of mounting stickiness my cell rings
and I make my connection with Jessie, another UVa student, at the green
dragon ride. They're not exactly flyers that she hands me, more like
pamphlets of stapled, photocopied pages. Whatever. It's time to peel off
from the family and wade into the crowd.

"Hi, do you know that students are sitting in at UVa for a living wage for
campus workers?" Amazingly, most people do; they've seen the local TV
coverage. And almost everyone is supportive, even eager to listen. I talk to
a Hispanic woman who translates everything I say to her husband. He listens
carefully then grins and shakes my hand like I'm welcoming him to America.
An African-American woman wants to know if this is for a living wage for
everyone, because she wants one too. My only rejection is from a yuppie
white guy who tells me he's here to enjoy the festival, "not for politics."
I can think of a lot of responses involving the concepts of neighborliness
and community but they all seem to contain the word "dickhead," which is not
how we talk here in the south.

Sunday morning I sign on at AOL and find, displayed as a "top story" that
the 17 student protestors were arrested last night. How could the
administration be so bone-headed? UVa's president could have defused the
protest with time-honored delaying tactics, like promising to form a
committee. Or he could have done the honorable thing and agreed to go with
the students to the state legislature to demand more funds for wages. But
no, he had to go and make national news by treating his most idealistic,
morally responsible, students like common criminals. I talk to Victoria
about the need to pack the courtroom on Monday.

It's a rainy Monday and, yes, the courtroom is packed, in fact, standing
room only. There are maybe 60 students, a pretty straight-looking bunch by
my ancient sixties' standards, plus some faculty, campus workers, and local
activists like Joe. I'm here in a sort of in loco parentis capacity because
I want the judge to see that there are grown-ups who care and because the
protestors have begun, in some mystical way, to seem like my very own
children. Good news, or at least not bad news: The 17 students are to be
released from jail, where they've been for two nights, on $500 personal
recognizance bonds.

We spill out onto the sidewalk for the hugging and hand-shaking phase. For
the first time, Charlottesville feels like home. I see a true community in
formation, a place where students think about the person who cleans their
classrooms at night and wonder how she feeds her children, where poverty
isn't hidden any more, but is out on the table as problem we've all got to
solve. I meet Victoria face to face and remind her to give me a statement I
can read to the students at Washington and Lee, where I'll be speaking
tomorrow, because this is a national movement -- from Georgetown to Stanford
-- and I want to spread the word.

Now I'm off to the rally.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In
America. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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