May Day message: Contract workers should not be “invisible” at UVa

This speech was delivered by Timothy Bruno at the Living Wage Campaign rally on May 1, 2012.

Today, May Day, is for working people everywhere, including the invisible ones. Despite what the administration claims in its emails, these are hard times for workers. I know. Back in September someone in my family lost his job, a manufacturing job with benefits, despite all the unpaid overtime he put in on nights and weekends. That’s not an easy thing to talk about at a wealthy school like the University of Virginia. But my family’s lucky and he eventually got some work with a small construction contractor. It’s not steady and it has no benefits, but it’s honest work. It’s also back-breaking work. He’s nearing 60. It’s taking a toll on him. But he’s lucky and the other week he got a job interview. The job wasn’t posted, but there were 400 applicants. So while they interview everyone else, this family member keeps working his occasional, back-breaking contract job because we’re lucky enough to have at least that.

There are contract workers like him renovating Old Cabell Hall as we speak. But there are others on campus too, cleaning offices, classrooms, and dormitories, or feeding students in the dining hall. It’s hard work, and important. Sometimes it’s even the same work being done by direct employees of the University. But since UVA employs them through contractors like Aramark, it  gets away with paying them as little as 7.25 an hour, with no benefits. Maybe no one up on Carr’s Hill has heard, but that’s not something you can get by on. Yet President Sullivan never mentions these thousands of contract employees in her emails or on her website. The administration doesn’t even know exactly how many work on campus or what they’re paid because it doesn’t want to be held accountable. It doesn’t want to take responsibility for the University’s underpaid and exploited contract labor. So the administration simply acts like they don’t exist. If this person from my family worked a contract at the University of Virginia, he wouldn’t even count as a person to the administration. President Sullivan touts her commitment to low-paid employees. But how can you commit to people you ignore?

After negotiations during the recent hunger strike, Executive Vice President Michael Strine made a promise to finally start auditing the companies that supply contract labor on campus, even though the University has always had that right. Giving your word is supposedly worth something at the University of Virginia. But I have a question for you all: Can we trust our administration? Can we trust a President who writes in her book about the urgency of a living wage, but doesn’t pay one? Can we trust a President who lectures about ethics, but doesn’t act on them? Can we trust an administration that pretends that 7.25 an hour is really 20.20 an hour? Can we trust an administration that waits 10 days to meet with students on hunger strike, students who are starving? Can we trust an administration that postures, and plays power games to appease donors, instead of standing up for its own employees? That acts like contract workers like the ones in my own family are worth the federal minimum wage, but not worth a public acknowledgment, not worth being literally counted in a caring community?

Of course we can’t. And that’s why we’re here today. We want a living wage for everyone working at UVA. That includes the contract employees the administration pretends don’t exist. It means transparency. To get that living wage, we need to ensure that Vice President Strine keeps his promise to audit companies providing contract labor–because we know we can’t trust him to do it himself. Neither can we trust a corporation like Aramark to do it.

We have to do it ourselves, because this is our university. And it’s our caring community, not Aramark’s. So President Sullivan, stop listening to corporations that don’t live here and start listening to us. We’re the real caring community, and we’re made up of workers, residents, students, faculty, staff, supporters. The hunger strike is over, but not the Campaign. The Campaign has been here a long time. And it lasts as long as the University’s exploitative labor practices last. We’re here today to remind Mr. Strine to keep his promise, and we’ll be here for as long as it takes until the University of Virginia pays all its employees a living wage.

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We Are A Movement. #UVAHungerStrike: 13 Days, 26 Total Strikers, 100+ Solidarity Fasts.