A Call to Disobedience
This op-ed by Jason Hickel, UVa graduate and former Wager, was originally published in the Cav Daily on February 10, 2012.
Students have a moral obligation to rally behind the Living Wage Campaign and advocate for fair wages for University employees
The Living Wage Campaign appears to be getting more serious. On Wednesday, the Campaign delivered a set of clear and well-researched demands to President Teresa Sullivan — the first such demands featuring an ultimatum since the historic occupation of Madison Hall in 2006 — along with a petition signed by 325 University faculty. Having left the University after completing my Ph.D. last year, I have been following these exciting developments online from the London School of Economics, where I now teach.
It’s high time the University administration take these demands seriously. It no longer makes sense to fall back on the worn-out assertion that a living wage is bad economics. The London School of Economics doesn’t seem to think so. Neither do the other eighteen colleges of the University of London, all of which recently implemented a living wage for all direct and contracted employees.
In the United States, almost all of the nation’s top 25 universities — the University’s peer institutions — have implemented a living wage structure. This approach to compensation is supported by data from Nobel Laureate economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, the 1992 Card-Krueger experiment, the 2010 Dube-Lester-Reich study and the Economic Policy Institute, among others. Even Susan Carkeek, vice president of human resources, has acknowledged the importance of the University having competitive salaries.
The economics behind a living wage are sound and well-articulated in the Campaign’s research document “Keeping Our Promises.” But to frame this issue in banal economic terms alone dilutes some of the brute, straightforward urgency of it. It’s absurd that hundreds of people who dedicate their working lives to the University do not earn enough to live above the poverty line and have to rely on second jobs, subsidized housing and food stamps just to make ends meet. This is nothing short of disgraceful. It has to end.
The fact that administrators have dragged their feet on this basic problem for decades highlights a profound deficit of moral courage on their part, especially when it would cost less than half of one per cent of the total annual budget of an institution with one of the biggest endowments of any state university in the nation – $4.76 billion this year, which is 28 percent higher than last year. As people who want to see the University reach its full potential, we should not be embarrassed to point out these gross inequities; rather, the administration should be embarrassed to defend them.
As University students, you are on the privileged side of social inequality in Charlottesville. And the degrees which you receive when you graduate will further bolster that privilege. But at what cost? Can you in good conscience accept credentials from an institution which operates by exploiting its employees? Can you in good conscience sit through courses about class, gender and race while ignoring the social lesions that plague your own institution? Why do we use our highly-trained minds to search for reasons to avoid treating workers like humans? Why not search for possibilities instead?
As Virginia Woolf was fond of saying, the experience of higher education affords a rare opportunity to stand back from our civilization and ask tough questions about it. If you find it wanting, you have the freedom to imagine it differently and boldly transform that vision into reality. This is the kind of active critical thinking with which the Living Wage Campaign is engaged. This task is not peripheral to the purpose of the academy; it is central to it.
If the academy cannot be a beacon of creative possibility — of intellectual transgression — then for what purpose does it exist?
The administration has until Friday, February 17 to commit to changing the University’s employee compensation structure before the Living Wage Campaign resorts to public action. If such action becomes necessary, I urge you to support them. Civil disobedience has long been central to the struggle for civil rights in this country, and as Martin Luther King, Jr. made clear before his assassination, the living wage is the next frontier of this struggle.
Henry David Thoreau was firm in his conviction about the importance of civil disobedience. “Disobedience,” he wrote, “is the true foundation of liberty.” In this case, the liberty in question is primarily that of the University’s many underpaid workers, who are mostly women and people of color. But your liberty as students is also at stake: your liberty to be engaged, thinking agents in the world. When compliance with the status quo renders you complicit in injustice, you are duty-bound to act. This is one of those moments. This is your moment to disobey.
Jason Hickel graduated from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2011.