Today’s “Foot Soldiers” segment features a group of University of Virginia students affiliated with the Living Wage Campaign, which staged a nearly two-week-long hunger strike to protest for better pay for the University’s service-sector workers. Perhaps the most well-known of them became well-known, in part, because he’s on the Virginia Cavaliers football team.
I spoke to Williams on Thursday night, shortly after the hunger strike ended, and he revealed how much of this, at the end, is about the workers’ ability (or lack thereof) to unionize.
Jamil Smith: Can you tell me the circumstances under which you learned of the Living Wage Campaign’s efforts?
Joseph Williams: They’ve been active at UVa for quite a long time. I first heard about them in my (freshman) year. They were doing some rallies, activism, things like that. So I’ve been involved, to a certain extent, since my (freshman) year. I’ve definitely ramped up my involvement now.
JS: What has been the extent of that involvement?
JW: I’d been involved more in rallies, and some meetings to get information on the topic, and things like that. I hadn’t done any letter-writing or anything like that. But I was familiar with several of the organizers, and it was easy for me to connect with them at this point, and say, “I want to lend my voice.”
JS: In the days leading up to the hunger strike, what was the resistance that the group encountered that you felt led to that drastic step? I understand that sit-ins, marches, and community outreach hadn’t worked.
JW: As you said, there have been numerous attempts to negotiate and persuade the administration, all of which had failed. So, for one thing, we believed this would be something that would garner attention from the media, to really put pressure on the administration to negotiate with us. The campaign organizers were taking a cue from a living-wage campaign at Georgetown, who employed a hunger strike in 2005 and were successful in getting a living wage implemented at their school.
JS: I know that you joined a little bit after the first hunger strikers began. What encouraged you take that step yourself?
JW: I actually wasn’t part of the planning process, so I wasn’t aware immediately that they were on a hunger strike. I actually found out on the second day. I was struck by their willingness to sacrifice their bodies for the sake of, and trying to give a voice to workers at the University, and so it really wasn’t very hard for me to say that this is something that I admire, and I definitely want to be involved as well.
JS: When you decided to strike, did you anticipate the kind of attention that you’d receive?
JW: I really did not. To be honest, it wasn’t something that I’d thought about that much. I knew going in that the goal was to generate media attention and put pressure on the University administration – but I did not think that a lot of that media attention would be focused on me and the fact that I’m a football player.
JS: Do you feel that that visibility helps the Campaign, or is in any way a distraction?
JW: I think both things could be true. It depends on how we use it. I think that we have a very smart group of individuals who’ve been able to play off that visibility very well, and for me, I’m not the type of person that’s hungry for that type of attention. This is about the Living Wage Campaign, and the workers whom we represent. This isn’t about me; this is about the workers.
JS: What are the kind of things that the workers themselves are telling you? Do they have any suggestions?
JW: You always get “thank-yous,” even from workers that you don’t know. The past few weeks, I’ve always been approached by different workers in various academic buildings or in dining halls, and they say, “Yeah, we saw you guys on the news. We really appreciate what you guys are doing.” But of course, this is all discreet, because a lot of the time they’re afraid for their jobs.
Actually, we had a worker tell us either (Wednesday or Thursday) that the people at Aramark, which is the top contractor for UVa – they do all of our dining services – the people at Aramark told all of their workers that if you are seen talking to Living Wage Campaigners, you will be fired. Frankly, it’s illegal; it’s an infringement upon their right to free speech. Your employer can’t tell you who you can or cannot talk to. And that’s the type of thing that we’re trying to combat, and the workers see that.
So, while it is difficult for them to voice their support for us publicly, they definitely do behind the scenes. That’s why we have so many worker testimonies; we get thank-yous all the time. We get donations all the time from workers who can spare money. Even though their funds are low, they’ll still donate to the cause because they know we’re fighting for them at the end of the day.
JS: Are they at all worried about you all going on hunger strike, saying that you all don’t have to do this?
JW: I know that a couple workers who I know personally have expressed concern as far as, “we want you guys to be healthy, we don’t want you to jeopardize your health.” But the vast majority have understood that they come to the same conclusion we have: that we’ve been fighting for this so long, the Campaign has been going on for so long, that it was time to escalate.
JS: How do you answer critics that argue that you’re fighting for a very limited number of people here, and these people took these jobs knowing what they would be paid? How would you answer the local Chamber of Commerce, which came out in support of the University’s president?
JW: Well, for one, obviously since the recession, the job market hasn’t been very robust. There have been a very limited number of jobs who have families to feed, and are forced to take whatever job they can get, whether they believe it pays enough or not. The University of Virginia is the largest employer not only in Charlottesville, but in central Virginia. And Aramark, its top contractor, is its second largest employer. So to say that there are a multitude of jobs going around, that there’s a lot of job choice for these workers, and that they could easily get another job with better pay and better benefits, it displays an ignorance of the situation at hand. There aren’t a whole lot of options for these workers. They have bills to pay. And the majority of jobs are with the University or their contractors.
JS: Do you feel as though the value is purely in shedding light on people who could’ve otherwise been easily ignored?
JW: Definitely. That is a main goal: educating people about a situation they may be unaware of. The workers, they don’t have a voice. Virginia is a right-to-work state, so it’s very hard to unionize. Companies, contractors, and the University of Virginia itself are very hostile to unions. So there’s not an avenue where workers can say, “This is how we’re being treated, and it needs to stop.” We as students and members of the community and as friends who are serviced by these workers every day felt like if no one was giving these people a voice, then no one was going to understand how they’re being mistreated. So we have a real obligation, a real responsibility to bring that to light. I feel that the more people that know about the mistreatment of the workers, the more people that will be appalled by what’s going on, the more people that will come to support our movement.
Though the University is resistant to negotiating with us, they are definitely afraid of the power that, and the media attention that we have brought to the subject. And the more time that passes, the more we will continue to be active, the more support we will have not only from the community and students, but labor unions – and the more the University will be forced to recognize the validity of our statements. So, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when a living wage will come to the University of Virginia.