Class Matters: The Living Wage Campaign, Student Power, and the Search for a Radical Praxis in Black Studies

Living Wage Shot

Educational institutions in this society have necessary and inherent political and social obligations. As educators you represent financial power, community influence, and social prestige. If your function of equipping students to cope successfully with reality is to be fulfilled, then you must not only be responsible, in terms of your educational functions, but you must also be responsive to the communities you supposedly serve. Armstead Robinson, 1969.[1]

 On the night of May 4, 1970 at approximately 10:30 p.m., fifteen hundred students at the University of Virginia converged on the historic Rotunda to protest the brutal slaying of four undergraduates at Kent State University. Tension filled the air as demonstrators vented their outrage at the horrific event responsible for their gathering. Earlier that day, students at Kent State had embarked on their fourth round of demonstrations against President Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. Their protest turned deadly when Ohio National Guardsmen fired on the large crowd, wounding ten students and killing four others. Outrage gripped white and black students across the nation as more than 400 campuses would be forced to suspend classes.

If administrators at the University of Virginia expected only an episodic outburst of dissent from students, they were in for a major disappointment. Over the next seven days, the university many regarded as a bastion of political and cultural conservatism transformed into a hotbed of radical protest against the ongoing war in Southeast Asia. Students refused to attend classes, occupied buildings, and pushed the University’s president, Edgar Shannon, into a heated confrontation with state legislators in Richmond. On day two of the student rebellion, campus activists drafted a list of demands to be presented to President Shannon. The demands ranged from unarming the University police to full inclusion of women in every aspect of campus life. The last demand called for President Shannon to “express support for the right of University employees to strike and bargain collectively.”  

 James Roebuck, Student Council President and History Graduate Student, Presents Student Demands to President Edgar Shannon , May 1970

James Roebuck, Student Council President and History Graduate Student, Presents Student Demands to President Edgar Shannon , May 1970

This was not the first time the issue of empowering University workers had been raised among student activists. On February 18, 1969, one thousand students assembled at the Rotunda to mark the culmination of a three-day campaign protesting the University’s “Racist Atmosphere.”   Over the course of the 90-minute rally, student leaders demanded that Shannon eradicate all vestiges of Jim Crow segregation, eliminate application fees for low-income students, and establish a Black Studies program by the fall of 1970.   Coupled with their focus on diversifying UVA’s student body and its curriculum, campus activists also engaged the concerns of the University’s low-wage earners. Student leaders insisted that “the legislature of Virginia raise the minimum wage scale for all-nonacademic University employees in the state and allow the University of Virginia the option of raising its own pay scale.” [2] Counted among the students leading this call was George Taylor, an undergraduate sociology major who would serve as the president of the Black Students for Freedom and draft the proposal for UVA’s Afro-American Studies program.

Class Matters...

Frequently ignored in traditional narratives on the formative years of Black Studies was the seriousness in which the field’s architects approached the issue of economic justice for university workers.   On college campuses across the nation, students’ demands for African American Studies programs/departments, along with their calls for improved wages and working conditions for non-academic employees, emerged out of the same fertile, political soil. Student activists at North Carolina A&T and UNC-Greensboro, for example, viewed the implementation of a politically vibrant Black Studies curriculum, the massive unionization of black workers, and the democratization of higher education as central to the implementation of their Black Power agenda. Further west on the campus of San Francisco State University, Black Studies activist James Garrett sought to build a “Black Student Union,” which would include “students, faculty, security people, buildings and grounds landscapers, gardeners, [and] maids who worked the dorms.”[3] As Black Studies scholar James B. Stewart so eloquently states, “discourse about the economic conditions of people of African descent has always constituted an important dimension of the black intellectual tradition that Africana Studies seeks to preserve and extend.”

Much has changed in the world of academia since the Black Power era, but the struggles of low-wage earners remains an issue of great concern for many activists. On the grounds of the University of Virginia (UVA), for example, three campaigns to secure a living wage for all employees have emerged in the past fifteen years. Campus activists and community members have written moving manifestos, organized labor teach-ins and forums, arranged meetings with campus administrators, and sought to build coalitions (most notably, the Labor Action Group) with workers. Combined with contesting the economic policies of the University, these campaigns have brought to the forefront important questions for scholars in Black Studies. How do we facilitate, individually and collectively, a more radical political vision and praxis within and beyond the University? To what extent does our pedagogical agenda and service work advance the labor concerns and rights of working-class blacks? How do we organize our resources to address economically marginalized communities and groups within our midst? Such concerns might appear parochial to those convinced that real political battles over social policy, racial justice, and economic inequality exist in more formal political settings (courts, Congress, labor unions); yet, it is my belief that academics must think critically about the institutional spaces we inhabit in our everyday lives, the ways in which we shape our students’ understanding of the world, and the unique opportunities we have to effect democratic change. To dodge this responsibility is to dishonor the legacy of our elders and ancestors whose political agenda extended beyond tenured track positions, endowed chairs, and nods of approval from University administrators. Especially given the devastating impact of the current economic crisis on African American communities, it is imperative for us to speak honestly about these issues.

Toward this end, this rather lengthy post examines the ongoing struggle for the implementation of a living wage at the University of Virginia. In recounting how various members of the UVA community have engaged the campaign since 2005, I want to consider how this localized struggle against racialized class inequality continues to expose the exclusionary tendencies in prevailing, “diversity discourses.” I also want to suggest how greater collaborative work among scholars across disciplines can influence public policy matters relating to low-wage, African American workers. Turning attention to the living wage movement seems appropriate given its recent success in mobilizing broad segments of the American public. Within the past seventeen years (give or take), more than one hundred and forty municipalities, including the city of Charlottesville, have passed ordinances guaranteeing public employees wages above the local poverty threshold for a family of four. Moreover, a series of court rulings, particularly New Mexicans for Free Enterprise et. al. vs. the City of Santa Fe, Woodfin v. Emeryville, and Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Sante Fe, Inc. vs. The City of Santa Fe, confirmed municipalities’ broad power to adopt living wage laws as a way of protecting the public health and safety of its constituents.   In tandem with their work at the municipal level, progressive politicians, union leaders, and activist lawyers have also mobilized public support for a constitutional amendment that will guarantee every American the right to a job and a livable wage. These initiatives play an important role in reinvigorating public discourse around issues of economic justice and the government’s responsibility to its citizens. “Aside from their direct effects,” political scientist Adolph Reed notes, living wage campaigns “are important in that they inject two important propositions into public discussion: (1) that a job is only worthwhile if it pays enough to live on, and (2) that government, which is responsible for the general public welfare, should not be implicated in employment at sub-poverty level wages.”[4]

Claims by Reed and others that living wage campaigns have the potential to challenge hegemonic discourses on labor, race, and public policy definitely held true at the University of Virginia between November of 2005 and June of 2006. Seemingly everywhere, the plight of the working poor emerged as a popular topic of conversation among undergraduates. Needless to say, the unimaginable level human suffering endured by residents of the Gulf Coast as a result of the deadly combination of Hurricane Katrina and neoliberal, governmental policies played a central role in the rising attention given to public policy matters related to labor.

Not lost upon many students and faculty at UVA, however, was the hypocrisy of criticizing relief efforts in New Orleans while turning a blind eye to the economic deprivation engulfing thousands of women, men and children in Charlottesville. On the pages of the Cavalier Daily, second year student Kevin Simowitz fumed that “the failure of the University to pay its workers a living wage is a travesty that requires immediate attention and correction.” “A forty hour work week is meant to be the standard for full-time employment in the United States. At the University of Virginia, however, a 40-hour work week is the standard for living in poverty.” [5] Contemporary activists waging war against the University’s wage scale drew inspiration from previous economic justice initiatives at UVA, as well as concurrent student protests at Georgetown, the University of Notre Dame, Swarthmore, the University of Georgia, the University of Miami, and Arizona State.

Flushed with an unwavering confidence in the righteousness of their cause, UVA’s Living Wage supporters pushed hard for a change in the University’s labor policy. On February 21, 2006, the Living Wage Campaign released “Keeping Our Promise: Toward A Living Wage at the University,” a detailed report that encouraged the administration to adopt a living wage (10.72 per hour) for classified staff and contract employees. The report also outlined how the adoption of a living wage would benefit both workers and the city of Charlottesville. Cognizant of the University’s growing concern about its public image, living wage advocates strategically framed the matter of workers’ wages as a diversity issue. [6] That African Americans and women constituted a significant percentage of the University’s low-income employees, they argued, spoke volumes about the enduring legacy of structural racism and gender inequality.  “The University’s stated commitment to diversity,” the report noted, “must confront the fact that people of color, particularly women, form a disproportionate number of those receiving less than a living wage.”[7] The report had the support of public officials (Senator Creigh Deeds, Mayor David Brown of Charlottesville, Julian Bond, Chairman of the NAACP), faculty members, state and national political groups (ACORN, the Virginia Organizing Project, and the Virginia AFL-CIO), and various student organizations (the Black Leadership Institute, the Black Student Alliance, University Democrats). Furthermore, its release set in motion a series of events that would shine the national spotlight on the University of Virginia.

On February 22, 2006, two hundred students, faculty, and community activists assembled at the Rotunda in support of a living wage for workers. Chants of “10.72” pierced the air as gatherers questioned the University’s commitment to social justice and racial diversity. In many ways, the living wage issue also forced certain members of the UVA community to confront the exclusionary tendencies in their own “diversity and equity” discourses. None of the leading racial advocacy groups on campus had extended their diversity and equity concerns to low wage employees. Instead, their focus had centered primarily on (1) providing a safe and welcoming environment for African American students and (2) addressing issues of minority faculty retention. A major question raised during the living wage campaign, however, was whether organizational entities like the Office of African American Affairs, the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies, and the Office for Diversity and Equity had a moral obligation to rally its resources around the current struggle to improve the material conditions of black workers. If African American administrative offices on campus were only concerned with protecting the rights of students and faculty members, then what does that say about the ways in which the vast majority of African Americans imagine “community?” These questions weighed heavily on my mind as the living wage movement gathered steam.

On March 3, University administrators informed the public that they had queried the Attorney General as to whether the university had the legal authority to set the minimum wage requirement for private contractors and vendors. One week later, the University raised the minimum wage for classified staff from $8.88 to $9.37.  This hardly appeased living wagers, who responded with more dramatic action. On the morning of April 12, seventeen students staged a sit-in at Madison Hall, which houses the offices of President John Casteen and his staff. Word of the students’ actions quickly spread across grounds as dozens of students and faculty members dashed for Madison Hall. Subsequent events added fuel to an already smoldering flame.  A moving speech by Julian Bond on the steps of the Rotunda situated current struggles for a living wage within the larger context of oppressed communities’ quest for human rights. A couple of hours later, UVA police arrested Professor Wende Marshall for attempting to enter Madison Hall.  

For the next three days, the Living Wage campaign captured the attention of students, administrators, faculty members, community leaders, and perhaps most importantly, the media.  Unfortunately however, negotiations between Casteen and the students stalled as he reiterated the University’s inability to force a living wage on contractors. Fed up with the impasse, school administrators enjoined the students to either end their sit-in or face arrest for trespassing. Several observers insisted that the President would never arrest the students for fear of bad publicity, but they proved widely off the mark. On Saturday evening, around 7 p.m., local police arrested the students occupying Madison Hall and hauled them off to the Charlottesville Regional Jail.

In the aftermath of the students’ arrest, President Casteen countered suggestions that the administration disregarded the needs of its low-wage workers: “In the end, the issue matters to all of us…because it is a matter of Virginia law and public policy.” Condemning the sit-in tactic, Casteen encouraged the protesters to pursue legislative and judicial action in their fight for a living wage. “Laws change in two fundamental ways: legislative action and judicial action. That is, either the living wage advocates can persuade the General Assembly to change laws they dislike, or they can find constitutional grounds for litigation, and then sue, thus letting the courts determine what is lawful and what is not.”[9]

If University administrators thought the “defeat” of the sit-in represented the end of the living wage campaign at UVA, they were in for a major disappointment. Late in the spring of 2010, conversations about reviving the campaign intensified among undergraduate and graduate students. Under the leadership of Greg Casar and Erin Franey, the campus group Workers and Students United (WASU) strategized over ways to galvanize greater support for a living wage. Simultaneous with these efforts, a coalition of students and professors launched the lecture series, “Class Matters: Race, Labor, and Public Policy in Contemporary America,” which brought to scholars and activists, including political scientist and living wage supporter Dorian Warren of Columbia University and legal scholar Paul Sonn of the National Employment Law Project. On the organizing front, the contributions of the Black Student Alliance, which has labored earnestly to inform their constituencies on how the living wage issue affects African American communities, have been central to the success of the current living wage campaign.    No small factor in this was the political contributions of its president at the time, Sarajanee Davis, a native of Charlottesville. In her view, the BSA could not sit on the sidelines in this important matter: “I think that BSA definitely has a strong responsibility to be a part of the living wage. If if you look at our mission, if you look at the tenets or the premises upon which we were founded. It was to be an organization that advocated for the needs of the black community, and the black community not just being considered black undergraduates or black graduate students or   even black faculty but considering the entire central Virginia/Charlottesville black community that is intricately connected to the University so for that reason alone BSA has a responsibility, a historical responsibility to be a part of the living wage campaign.”

Equally supportive of the living wage movement was the Carter G. Woodson Institute, which since its inception in 1981 has been intellectually engaged in matters relating to labor and public policy. In fact, on the eve of the Living Wage sit-in of 2006, the Woodson Institute (largely under the initiative of Professor Corey D.B. Walker, now a Dean at Winston Salem State University) organized a series of conversations and events designed to spark greater conversation on the complex realities of race and class in American society. These initiatives constituted a response not only to our local situation, but also to the political questions that dominated the field of Africana Studies in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Our institutional home—the Woodson Institute—had to assume the responsibility of challenging not only the victim-blaming critiques circulating in the mainstream media, but also the growing tendency to read New Orleans through the lens of exceptionalism. Especially as relief efforts within and beyond UVA grounds focused more on individual service than the responsibilities of the state, our goal was to push people to think more critically about public policy matters, the political economy, and the state of labor movement. To facilitate a more robust dialogue, the Woodson Institute sponsored a lecture by Bill Fletcher, who at the time served as President and CEO of TransAfrica. Fletcher’s talk, “Class, Race, Politics, and the Future of the Labor Movement” highlighted the structural roots of American poverty, the failure of neo-liberal regimes, and the urgent need to built a transformational labor movement. Combining racial analysis with class critique, Fletcher disabused listeners of the notion that a partnership could be forged between African American labor and corporate America. “Capitalists,” he raged, “are not interested in a partnership…Look at the Gulf Coast. Look at the people that suffered as a result of Katrina. Look at the redundant workforce that is no longer needed. That is your future so we find ourselves in a situation where there really is no peace in our time. There is no accommodation. This is a fight.” (for a full text of his speech see )

 Of course, lecture series and programs are not the only ways in which Black Studies programs and departments can and should address the needs of the working poor. In fact, developments within the living wage campaign have convinced me that one of the ways in which our field can better attend to its political responsibilities is through greater collaboration with intellectual entities capable of providing legal services to workers, particularly those laboring in anti-union environments and/or “right to work-states.” Here important collaborative possibilities exist between African American Studies units and legal scholars.

As some are well aware, critical support for improving the material condition and wages of the working poor has also come from many legal scholars. Via their scholarly writings and their institutional homes, Philip Harvey and William Quigley, among others, have devoted their time and resources to addressing the living wage issue. An outspoken proponent of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every American a right to a job that pays a living wage, William Quigley has discussed at length how the implementation of a living wage scale in the public and private sector would improve the quality of life for all Americans. In Ending Poverty, Quigley notes: “By amending our Constitution to include the right to a job at a living wage, we are making a solemn promise to one another—a promise that those among us who want to work will always have the opportunity to do so and that those who work full time will earn enough to be self-supporting. As a nation, polls consistently show that we already support these principles. Incorporating them into our Constitution will keep them high on our list of national priorities.” [10] On the legal front, significant work has also been conducted at the institutional level. For example, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, founded in 1995, brings together activists and scholars committed to inclusive and effective democracy. One of its most important activities has been advising cities and states across the United States on minimum wage and live wage legislation.

Of particular interest for me are the ways in which Black Studies departments, programs, and institutions could duplicate this model of outreach. For example, the Woodson Institute, in collaboration with the progressive legal scholars at UVA and beyond, could provide living wage advocates with three important services:

  • Inform workers of their legal protections, as guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act, in a “right to work” state. Far too often, employees in Virginia and other “right to work-states” feel as if they have no legal protection against exploitative employers. Consultation with legal scholars and lawyers would not only provide them with much needed information, but would also boost their confidence during periods of labor strife.  
  • Provide legal guidance and assistance to workers who feel as if their rights have been violated.
  • Investigate/Debate/Defend the constitutionality of the University requiring private contractors to apply a living wage either as a condition of receiving a procurement contract under the terms of the Public Procurement Act or as a result of the Board of Visitors general regulating authority.

Let me close by stating that my endorsement of greater institutional support of the Living Wage Movement does not preclude a critique of the movement’s shortcomings. The lack of African American involvement in the planning stages of the UVA’s Living Wage Campaign in 2006, along with campus activists’ limited attention to such workplace issues as career advancement, childcare, and quality of work for UVA employees, troubled me. Still, despite the shortcomings of the living wage campaign at UVA and elsewhere, the battle to ensure that working women and men receive a livable income is a noble one that possesses the potential to push the nation in a much more progressive direction. Thus, one can only hope that progressive scholars, particularly those of color, participate in, as well as critique, campus-based movements geared toward transforming the spaces in which we inhabit into exemplary models of social and economic democracy.

[1] Armstead Robinson, Black Studies in the University: A Symposium. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 209.

[2] The Cavalier Daily, February 19, 1969.

[3]Ibram Rogers, “Remembering the Black Campus Movement: An Oral History Interview with James P. Garrett,” Journal of Pan African Studies, Vol. 2, No. 10, June 2009.

[4] Adolph Reed, Class Notes: Posing As Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York: The New Press, 2000), 128-129.

[5] Kevin Simowitz, Cavalier Daily, November 11, 2005.

[6] A series of racial incidents/assaults taking place in the fall semester of 2005 had resulted in greater media scrutiny for Thomas Jefferson’s University. Lengthy stories on racial tension and conflict at UVA appeared in the Washington Post, the Harvard Crimson, and Newsweek. The Washington Post, September 22, 2005; Harvard Crimson, October 6, 2005, Newsweek, November 28, 2005.

[7] “Keeping Our Promise,” February 21, 2006.

[8] John Casteen, “A Letter from President Casteen Concerning Competitive Compensation at the University,” April 20, 2006

[9] William Quigley, Ending Poverty as (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), 94.

Sugarcoated Arsenic This Week at 2014 Edinburgh International Film Film Festival

sugarcoated arsenic card jpeg Sugarcoated Arsenic, a cinematic exploration of African American life at the University of Virginia, will screen at the historic Edinburgh Film Festival this week. it is a part of the shorts program, Ethics. The experimental documentaries in this program oscillate between intellectual objectivity and discomforting proximity. Confronting past events, present predicaments and potential futures, the films deal with race, discrimination, marginality, cultural difference, technology and science. Rather than asking the spectator to take up a fixed position, these works open up a space for personal reflection.


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