We will have an exclusive interview with Joseph Williams later this week, as well as an article explaining why it’s so rare and so important for an NCAA athlete to be speaking out and standing, as part of a broader campus movement for social and economic justice. But first, with permission, here is Joseph Williams speaking for himself. You will be impressed.
Why I’m hunger striking at UVA
By Joseph Williams
I am a third year studying Political and Social Thought, and a student-athlete at the University of Virginia. Last Friday, 12 University students began a 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. I joined two days later; since then, 5 more students have joined the hunger strike, which is now closing in on in its 7th day. 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”.
Our University seeks to distinguish itself as a caring community and prides itself on traditions of honor and student self-governance. However, in our “caring community,” hundreds of contract employees may make as little as $7.25/hour while six out of the top ten highest paid state employees in Virginia hold administrative positions at the University. Many employees, mostly women and African Americans, do not receive enough pay for their basic necessities to exist in Charlottesville, where the cost of living is nearly 10% higher than the national average. This extreme inequality has disturbed and disillusioned students for decades, many of whom have tried to grapple with issues of race, class, and poverty in and out of the classroom. We have taken every conventional route towards this goal, garnered wide student, faculty and community support—yet our pleas have been consistently ignored and workers are still paid unjust wages.
On a personal level, this cause is one that hits very close to home. 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.