Category Archives: Editorials

The Hunger Games

This editorial, written by UVa grad and former Wager Jason Hickel, was published today in the Cav Daily.

Hunger games

The Living Wage Campaign hunger strike serves as a needed tactic to promote proper compensation for University employees

By Jason Hickel, Guest Viewpoint on February 22, 2012

The Living Wage Campaign is entering the fourth day of its historic hunger strike, and the administration has still not responded to its demands. As an alumnus of the University — along with hundreds of other alumni who are watching this drama unfold through the news — I must say I have never been prouder of University students for their courage and initiative, and never more embarrassed by the administration for its inertia.

Some may criticize the hunger strike as too extreme a measure. But make no mistake: This is a tactic of last resort. Hunger strikes are not pleasant, least of all for the strikers themselves. We can be assured this is not something they have entered into lightly. And it’s certainly not fun. At this point, having gone without food for more than 72 hours, strikers — who, rest assured, are under the watch of caring physicians — are reporting pain, weakness and psychological stress.

The campaign has been building its case with meticulous care during the past 14 years. It has exhausted every other conceivable approach, including research, seminars, teach-ins, rallies, marches, letters, petitions and polite meetings with administrators. It has received the backing of economists and legal experts. It has the explicit support of more than 325 faculty, dozens of student and community organizations and the Charlottesville City Council. No other single issue has so commanded the imagination of the University community since the Civil Rights Movement.

And yet the administration remains intractable. Instead of taking action on an issue which has unprecedented popular support — how often does one see sustained rallies and petitions for, say, outlays on new recreation facilities or renovations of infrastructure? — President Sullivan’s office has retreated behind a veil of distortions and excuses, even stooping to threaten students with suspension, expulsion and arrest on trumped-up charges. This is truly shocking, especially in light of the fact that it would cost a mere fraction of one percent of the University’s total annual operating budget to implement a living wage.

But why a hunger strike? Consider the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” At its core, the campaign exists to cast light on what sociologists call the “structural violence” of low wages. The University’s minimum wage is not sufficient to meet the basic costs of living in Charlottesville. Hundreds of employees are forced to take second and third jobs, to spend less and less time with their families, and to suffer the indignity of poverty even after years of dedicated service to this institution.

This is the “hidden tension” which the campaign seeks to expose. Underpaid labor is a mundane form of violence which we take for granted in everyday life, for it doesn’t have the sense of rupture and shock that attends, say, physical assault. It has the appearance of being normal, of being inevitable, of being the natural consequence of impersonal “market forces.” As philosopher Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, structural violence is “invisible” because it is “inherent in the normal state of things.” While a person might get prosecuted for physical assault, no one gets prosecuted for paying poverty wages.

As a tactic, the hunger strike works because it transfigures a hidden, abstract form of violence into a very visible form of violence projected onto very real bodies. It transposes the structural violence of low wages from the invisible lives of the University’s underpaid workers — most of whom are women and people of color — to the very visible lives of students. The administration may be content to ignore the former, but they cannot ignore the latter. This transposition forces the administration to accept direct responsibility for violence.

This is not to say the pain suffered by the strikers is equivalent to the pain suffered by underpaid workers. Far from it. While the former is voluntary, the latter is imposed and inescapable. One is drama, the other is tragedy. The 14 students who have committed to fasting are partaking — along with others who are fasting in solidarity — of an ancient and noble form of political struggle which has played a key role in every emancipating movement in our nation’s history. Their courage, their willingness to put their bodies on the line, stands in marked contrast to the cowardice of the administration.

Patricia Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer, has officially warned the strikers to “not disrupt”  the “goals of the University.” But doesn’t the University exist to make students critical thinkers and to empower them to act on their knowledge? Since when is engaged citizenship disruptive? These students seek not to disrupt the University, but to heal it, to humanize it and to hold it to the high standards to which it claims to aspire. They deserve our gratitude, our respect and our support.

“The arc of history bends toward justice,” King told us. This may be true, but only when individuals summon the will to bend it thus. To the students of the University, I urge you to stand alongside the campaign to grip and bend the arc of history with all the passion that this case calls forth. This is your moment to act, to fulfill your potential to be engaged agents in the world, recognizing that, as Frederick Douglass put it, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.”

Jason Hickel graduated from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2011.


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.

A hard bargain

Students have a moral obligation to rally behind the Living Wage Campaign and advocate for fair wages for University employees

By Jason Hickel, Guest Viewpoint on February 10, 2012

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.