It’s Day 10 of the University of Virginia Hunger Strike

University of Virginia hunger strike
Photo of Hallie Clark courtesy of Seth Kaye; all rights reserved.

Twenty students at the University of Virginia are starving, but not only because they haven’t eaten in 10 days.

They’re starved for justice from an administration they say has failed to provide a living wage for its employees, and so they began a hunger strike on February 18. Their demands: Pay University of Virginia workers more–at least $13 per hour–and ensure safe working conditions. According to UVA’s Living Wage Campaign, the lowest paid service workers at the institution are primarily women of color, making as little as $7.25 an hour. At the same time, the campaign says, six out of the top ten highest paid state workers in Virginia hold administrative positions at the school.

After 14 years of mobilizing through sit-ins, meetings, rallies and teach-ins, the group has now resorted to their most extreme act of protest in an effort to end what they describe as “a perpetuation of economic violence against the UVA workforce.”

In an exclusive interview with the Ms. Blog, striker Hallie Clark, a queer feminist of color, describes her place in the movement and why all feminists should be concerned about the living wage.

College students are often criticized for taking on big issues absent any real connection. What are the personal connections students have with living wage advocacy and how do you understand your place of privilege?

I think of my place of privilege as only a first step towards the end goal of worker empowerment. We are not, and have never been, a service organization. We are an organization that aspires to become “workers and students united” and we are hopeful that this campaign will be able to be maintained by employees with student support.

Our goal is to disrupt the power structure and open enough space so that workers can step in. Workers here are constantly afraid (and rightfully so) of retaliation. Since the hunger strike many of the contract workers have been told not to talk about the Living Wage Campaign with each other or with us. We have built deep relationships with workers; to the extent that we can we use their words, offering worker testimony with name changes for their safety.

Can you offer specific examples of the challenges workers have faced as they have dictated them to you and other people working in the movement?

I have friends, both indirect and direct employees, all African American women, who I have formed friendships with over time. I don’t talk to all of them about the campaign. Some I do, but with others, I visit their homes just to talk about their children and their lives. Many of the workers are my mom’s age while others are closer in age to me. I don’t want to fetishize them but here are examples of some of their stories:

Maya* shared with the Living Wage Campaign her observations of the discriminatory hiring and promotion practices enacted by the university and its contractors.

Elizabeth*, who has been working for UVA for almost 30 years, makes only $10.14 an hour. She told the Living Wage Campaign, “Even a small raise could help me support my sister and mother. … I always expect a raise is coming, but it never comes.”

Rachel*, who has been working at the university for 25 years, shares how she was expected to clean 15 rooms in 30 minutes and would receive only 30 minutes for lunch, although that was frequently cut short due to chronic understaffing. She began to suffer severe headaches as well as increased stress as a result of the amount of work she was expected to do.

One UVA worker whom I consider a friend has decided that she wants to speak out at rallies. Even though I urged her, this was ultimately her decision. I’m hoping more and more will feel empowered enough to start coming to meetings.

Why is this movement significant on a national scale and why should it matter to feminists?

There are some obvious ways that this is a feminist issue. The vast majority of people who are at the bottom of the pay scale, and therefore most negatively affected by low wages, are women and people of color. At UVA, African American women are particularly overrepresented in this group. While for direct employees starting salary is about $10.65 per hour, contract workers can make as little as the federal minimum. This is not enough money to live on for anyone, but particularly challenging in Charlottesville, where the cost of living is 10 percent higher than the national average.

Full-time work deserves full-time pay. As long as women occupy low-wage work and suffer from the economic violence it inflicts, a Living Wage will necessarily be a feminist issue and one we increasingly cannot ignore.

*Names in testimonies were changed to protect the identity of workers.

Find updates on the campaign here. Hear from the striking students below:

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Eva McKend is a graduate student at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University where she is pursuing her degree in Broadcast and Digital Journalism. A multimedia storyteller, she enjoys using her skills of writing, videography and film editing to tell stories that would otherwise go untold. In 2011, she graduated from Swarthmore College, where she founded A Campaign for Me to address black female representation in the media. Eva is a former Ms. intern.