In a political move not often seen from college athletes, University of Virginia football player, Joseph Williams, has joined the Living Wage Campaign in a campus hunger strike “to protest the economic and social injustices perpetrated by the UVa administration against the vast majority of the University’s service-sector employees,” reports Yahoo Sports.
Williams, a junior walk-on safety for the Cavaliers, is a Political and Social Thought major who chose to speak out about the meager salaries of the staff — comprised predominantly of African-Americans and women — due in large part to his own childhood of instability and working poverty:
As one of four children supported by a single mother, I have experienced many periods of economic hardship in my life. Growing up, I moved over 30 times – including various stays in homeless shelters, the homes of family friends, and church basements. As a result of these experiences, I know firsthand what the economic struggle is like for many of these underpaid workers. One UVa employee anonymously shared that though she works full time for the University, over 40 hours a week, her family was still forced to go without electricity for nearly 3 months, unable to pay for the rent, electric bill and other basic necessities on the meager wages she is paid by the University. Such stories are the reason that I and countless other Living Wage supporters have chosen to take up this cause and give a voice to the many University employees who often cannot speak up for fear of retaliation from the administration.”
Among the issues of economic hypocrisy that Williams addresses in his letter is the fact that many contract workers make “as little as $7.25/hour, while 6 of the top ten paid employees in Virginia hold administrative positions at the University.”
In the city of Charlottesville, where the cost of living is 10 percent above the national average, a respectable wage can literally be the difference between scraping by and poverty. According to the Orange Dot Project report released in 2011, of the 7,000 families in Charlottesville, one in five do not make enough money to be self-sustaining. One in three can’t afford child care and transportation costs.
Williams, a student of the intersectionality between race, class and economic inequality, exhibits no hesitation when also exposing both the blatant and subtle racism that dwells within the so-called “caring community” of UVa:
Although the University of Virginia – Thomas Jefferson’s brainchild and the only US university designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – has the prestige and high moral traditions of other top institutions, levels of inequality exist here today that are reminiscent of Jefferson’s days as a slave-master and plantation owner – with one anonymous employee even referring to the University’s Grounds as “the plantation”.
Williams joined the initial 12 students two days after they began their hunger strike — which is now on day nine. Since he joined, five more students have added their names to the list. Hopefully, the activism of this extremely brave group will serve as a catalyst of change at the University of Virginia.