Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Vive le Sit In!

One of the most common reactions I have heard to this year's news stories about students in France striking for labour rights has been, "Why aren't there more activists on American university campuses? Why are we being shown-up by the French? What happened to our willingness to fight for equality?"

Well in Virginia at least, students are starting to protest again.

This weekend night, 17 students were arrested at the University of Virginia on the fourth day of their protest aginst the substandard wages of university support staff:
"Hundreds of workers at the University of Virginia, overwhelmingly women and people of color, are currently being paid less than a living wage. Many housekeepers, dining hall workers and other employees are forced to work a second full-time job after putting in a full day at the university," said Abby Bellows, a leading member of the "Living Wage Campaign."

University president John T. Casteen III, who has administrative offices in the Madison Hall where the students were protesting, denied access to the students by members of the faculty, parents, clergy and other supporters using the police to lock them out. Students were even denied food brought by supporters.

"If I were the president of the university, I would be proud that these students are speaking on behalf of the least of these in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr.," said attorney-author, Mark Lane, a local observer who spoke at the university recently and who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement in the early 60's. "Forty percent of the homeless people in Charlottesville have full-time jobs," Lane added.

Julian Bond, a professor at the university and the national director of the NAACP, spoke in support of the protesting students on Wednesday and said, "We gather here today in support of others, who like earlier marchers this week and last, want to enjoy the most basic citizenship rights -- rights to life, rights to liberty, and rights to happiness' pursuit."

"It is morally reprehensible to pay poverty wages to the very employees who keep our university safe, clean, beautiful and functioning but that is the case. University president John Casteen III has refused to secure living wages for these employees despite the support of students, members of the faculty, unions, alumni donors members of the board of trustees and the community," Ms. Bellows concluded.
I have to agree with Mark Lane. In fact, all of Virginia should be proud of these students.

[Note: I started this post on Sunday, but I've been crazily busy (in a good way!) with work and I want to publish before the story is stale. I have more thoughts -- such as the fact that I'm shocked and horrified that 40% of homeless people in Charlottesville hold full time jobs -- but I'm pressing the "publish" button now, and I'll try to return to this later.]

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