Unfed for a cause: Student hunger strike enters second week
Exhausted and hungry but determined. That's how the 20 UVA students on a hunger strike to protest for a "living wage" at UVA describe themselves.
On Monday, February 27– a full 10 days since some of them ate– the Living Wage Campaign held a Rotunda-area protest to report results of an hours-earlier meeting with UVA President Teresa Sullivan.
Any hunger strikers hoping for a meal were disappointed.
"At this point, no real progress has been made," said UVA English professor Susan Fraiman, part of a five-person negotiating team that met with Sullivan.
On February 17, at the beginning of the hunger strike– the latest in a series of efforts to pressure UVA to raise its minimum wage to $13 an hour– Sullivan responded with a university-wide email in which she defended the University's pay structure by including the value of healthcare and other benefits.
"The actual current minimum starting pay for an entry-level employee including the average level of health benefits is $14.55 per hour, exceeding the students' demand by $1.55 per hour," Sullivan wrote. Adding in other benefits, she wrote, translates into a minimum pay of $17.07 to $20.20 per hour.
That calculation doesn't sit well with Living Wagers, who note on their website that Sullivan's own academic research as a sociologist explores the need for a living wage.
"It's an inaccurate distinction," said Deborah McDowell, director of UVA's Carter G. Woodson Institute and one of 300 faculty members petitioning Sullivan to raise compensation for the lowest paid employees. "You don't compensate a living wage by folding in the benefits. Benefits don't pay bills."
By 12:30pm, well over 100 people– students, faculty, and plain old Charlottesville residents– had gathered in front of the Rotunda bearing signs for the cause. Drivers on University Avenue frequently honked to show support, as did the drivers of multiple city buses.
"I'm not just doing it for the workers; I'm doing it for their kids," said first year student Marvin Nogueda, who described the challenges of his own childhood, when his mother worked for minimum wage, and he couldn't participate in many activities.
"I'm upset as a UVA alum when our university doesn't measure up to the standards of most top universities in the country," said recent grad school graduate Katy Blumenthal, who joined the hunger strike two days ago.
And Tim Bruno, a grad student who was among the first to shun food, described losing 14 pounds and his energy along with it.
"It's really taking its toll," he told the gathering, before urging the administration to listen to Living Wagers' demands. "All of us are still standing up for what's right," he said. "So please, don't sit down on the job."
Also present was UVA football player Joseph Williams, who brought national attention to the strike when his story was published on activist filmmaker Michael Moore's blog.
According to numerous online sources, the average human adult can survive up to 60 days without sustenance, but the toll can be brutal. After fat stores are depleted, a starving body begins cannibalizing lean tissue, and organ failure eventually results.
One renowned figure protesting this way was martyred Indian politician Mohandas Gandhi. In the summer of 1981, 10 Irish prisoners– members of the Irish Republican Army and the Irish National Liberation Army– died after starving themselves for between 46 and 73 days.
The UVA students are under medical supervision, they say, and one student told a reporter she ended her participation at a doctor's recommendation after she'd lost 15 pounds and a lot of hair after just eight days.
Campaign member and faculty member Fraiman suggested that the Living Wagers have found some "common ground" with the school administration, and another meeting might take place as early as Tuesday, February 28.
"We'll work harder for this than they'll work against it," a 10-day-hunger striker named Kyle shouted to the crowd.
While the group didn't gain entry to Sullivan's office, UVA vice president of student affairs Patricia Lampkin came outside and stood on the steps.
"I'm hungry, I"m thirsty," one hunger striker called out.
"Get some water, Robert," Lampkin wearily replied.