Students are stepping up their protests in support of low-wage workers on their campuses, and administrators at several institutions are cracking down -- and taking heat in some quarters for doing so.
The latest institution to get tough is the University of Virginia, where 17 students were arrested Saturday as a result of a peaceful sit-in they had been staging for four days at an administrative building on campus. President John T. Casteen III ordered the arrests, to the dismay of some students and faculty members.
“I understand that they have a vested financial interest in not paying the workers a living wage, but at the same time, to arrest people who are peacefully demonstrating on behalf of a cause that they are deeply committed to, is wrong,” said Todd Rosenbaum, a senior and legal liaison for the student activists, which are collectively known as the UVa Living Wage group.
“The administration has been punitive, heavy-handed and not willing to have a conversation about this issue,” added Susan Fraiman, a professor of English at the university. “I hope that the students’ tenaciousness will have the desired effect.”
But Casteen said that he has been more than willing to negotiate, and that the arrests were prompted out of concern for the safety of the protesters. "We have called on many in the university community, including members of our university police and Dean of Students Office, to work overtime and through the past few nights to ensure the safety of these students and the security of our facilities," the president said in a statement released Saturday.
"It has come at a cost to their personal and family lives on this religious holiday weekend. We believe it was important to bring this sit-in to conclusion so that others might get on with their lives and the staff of Madison Hall might be able to get back to work on Monday morning," he said. "The university takes no pleasure in having to arrest its own students, but it was time for the disruption to come to an end."
On the first day of the sit-in, last Wednesday, Wende Marshall, an assistant professor of anthropology, was charged with trespassing after having been told to leave the building. On Friday, the administration cut off wireless Internet services in the building and would not allow outsiders to bring food to the students.
“I’m really embarrassed about the university’s treatment of our kids,” said Peter Ochs, a religious studies professor who tried to deliver matzoh and study books to the students, but was told he could not do so.
The students have been asking for months that the university take a leadership role in increasing the pay for the lowest paid workers at the institution, said Abby Bellows, a student spokeswoman for the group. The students have been asking that all university employees, whether directly employed or hired through outside firms, “be paid a living wage of at least $10.72 per hour before benefits, adjusted at least annually to inflation and the cost of living in Charlottesville.”
Currently, the university’s lowest hourly wage rate is $9.37 an hour, "slightly higher than that paid by the City of Charlottesville, whose wage practices the group has applauded," according to a statement from the university. UVa's pay rate is the highest among state institutions
Administrators have maintained that they cannot control how much money private contractors pay to university staffers. “From what I have seen, you have attracted good local support for certain aspects of your cause (i.e., higher wages for persons employed in jobs that pay less than they should), but also that you have lost ground with regard to the claim that the University (or I) can unilaterally address the matters found by the Attorney General to be beyond our lawful scope,” Casteen wrote to the students in an official letter last Thursday. “You know and I know that I do not have the authority to do what you have demanded.”
The university has taken proactive steps in dealing with the students' concerns. Administrators recently sent David E. Johnson, a deputy attorney general of Virginia, a letter asking whether the university could set its own minimum wage policy for contracted employees, separate from those established by the state.
"It is the advice of this office that ... the University of Virginia does not have the authority to require a minimum or living wage requirement that must be paid by private contractors and vendors," wrote Johnson. He said that such authority could only be granted by the state's General Assembly.
In a speech on Friday, Meredith Richards, a former Charlottesville city councilwomen, suggested that the university could push harder than it is, noting that some municipalities in the state have passed living wage ordinances that have not gotten them into legal trouble with the state government and have allowed their cities to pay more to low-wage earners.
However, Johnson said in his letter that regardless of these local decisions, the Office of the Attorney General does not believe that they serve as precedents that would protect the university from violating state law.
Before ordering the arrests, Casteen asked that the students conduct their protest "in some area that does not impede transactions and normal business for persons not involved in your protest." He said that he was willing to develop analyses that could support a case for increased wages for low-income earners. He also said he would "commit to recruiting qualified faculty of various political persuasions to participate with you in the analysis to support a serious campaign with the General Assembly."
According to a statement released by the university, “Casteen was clear throughout the four days that while he respected the work that the group has done and their dedication to it, he did not believe a sit-in in Madison Hall was the best way to produce those results.” Casteen could not be reached throughout the weekend for further comment on the arrests.
Students across the country have been using their remaining weeks of classes to support low-wage workers at their respective institutions. At the University of Miami, some students have now been on a hunger strike for almost two weeks trying to get President Donna E. Shalala to support unionization for janitors at the institution.
To date, student organizers at Miami say that the administration has been unreceptive and has made them feel “marginalized.” “The struggle for economic justice for workers is a nationwide problem,” said Jacob Coker-Dukowitz, a junior at Miami. “But our culture has taken the power so far out of the hands of low-wage workers.”
Over the weekend, administrators and city police shut down a demonstration by dozens of University of Vermont Green students who have argued that low-wage workers there need to have an increase in salary from $9.00 to $12.00 an hour. Members of the Student Labor Action Project say that this action would result in a more "livable wage."
“I think students have read well the national concern over the near poverty level of many low-income workers,” said Ochs of UVa. “We teach our students to care about other people and they have tried to care about the poorest people who service our needs.”
The seventeen Virginia students are expected to be released from jail on Monday.