Virginia students sit in, 17 arrested in solidarity with campus workers for living wage

Seventeen University of Virginia students were arrested on the Charlottesville campus April 15 because they staged a four-day sit-in at the university president’s office. The students demanded the administration accept its “moral responsibility” and commit to paying a living wage to university workers.

Seth Croft, 21, a third-year English literature major, was arrested. “We tried everything we could to work with the administration,” he said in a telephone interview. “We realized that we needed to escalate in order to get them to hear our voices.”

Croft said his parents understood his decision to sit in and his mother, inspired by the action, joined the protest during his arrest. Croft added that the students and the living wage campaign were inspired by the example of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the nonviolent sit-ins and protests for racial integration that took place at the university 40 years ago.

Students have set up a tent city on the lawn next to Madison Hall, where the president’s office is located, in support of the sit-in. At one point they formed a human chain around the building, singing and chanting.

Since the arrests, rallies and vigils involving students, university workers, labor leaders, professors and community leaders have been taking place non-stop.

Living wage fights for university custodial, cafeteria and other workers have taken place across the country, including at Harvard, the University of Texas and Stanford. Last year at Georgetown University, a student-led hunger strike lasting nine days led school officials to agree to raise hourly wages to $14 from $11.33.

Although last month the University of Virginia raised its entry-level wage from $8.88 an hour to $9.37, the increase only applies to workers who are directly employed by the university. Most campus workers, such as food workers, landscapers and custodians, a majority of them women and people of color, are contract workers. They are hired by outside companies and paid as little as $5.15 an hour, the minimum wage in Virginia. That is not enough to raise a family on, workers and students say.

Carmen Comsti, 21, a senior in American studies and anthropology, was also arrested. “My family is a working-class family and I know how it is to struggle,” she told the World. “We want to make sure that everyone understands that it’s not only the legal or economic arguments that must be clear, but that this is, most importantly, a moral and ethical issue as well.”

The students, along with labor and community supporters, are demanding that entry-level workers at the university be paid at least $10.72 an hour.

The campaign for a living wage at the University of Virginia has been going on since 1998.

Todd Rosenbaum, 22, a senior in political philosophy and American studies, is an organizer with the campaign. “Nobody should be working 40 hours a week and not afford to feed their families,” he said. “Because the administration has ignored us in the past, the sit-in was designed to bring us into discourse with them. The administration has made it very hard for the workers to speak out.”

Ben Van Dyne, 23, another student organizer, said, “This is a beginning of a new stage. There are people of conscience who will stand up and say enough is enough.”

Jan Cornell, president of the campus Staff Union, said, “This is only the beginning. This is not over. We are going to go on, and on and on until [university president John] Casteen pays the workers $10.72 an hour.”

Staff Union, affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, has represented the workers employed at the university since 2002, but has yet to be recognized by the administration. Cornell called the university president a “coward.”

Sue Herndon, an organizer with Staff Union, said the union has been working with the living wage campaign from the beginning. “Virginia is a right-to-work state,” where employees can’t have a closed shop, in which employers agree to hire only union members at union-scale wages. Herndon went on to thank the students for their actions. “Thank you, you’re incredible, absolutely inspiring, phenomenal.”

And to the workers she added, “Be strong and join us, together we can make a difference. With the kids we can be invincible. The people united will never be defeated.”