Joseph Williams moved more than 30 times as a child, living in homeless shelters, church basements, and the homes of family friends. Now Williams, a junior safety on the University of Virginia football team, is taking up a cause supporting university workers who are barely making enough to get by.
Williams is one of 18 Virginia students participating in a hunger strike — now more than a week long — to protest the poor wages paid to many of the university’s service employees. The strike, organized by the school’s Living Wage Campaign, began on February 17 with the goal of getting a living wage for underpaid employees. “I know first-hand what the economic struggle is like for many of these underpaid workers,” Williams wrote in an essay explaining his participation:
In failing to implement a living wage for its lowest paid employees, the University of Virginia has also failed to uphold the moral standards to which it holds its students. We are engaging in this hunger strike to call attention to the administration’s moral hypocrisy and to finally produce results in the form of a Living Wage. Although I am exhausted, hungry, dry-mouthed, and emotionally taxed, I believe it is my responsibility as a member of the University community, and even more as a member of the human race, to stand up and speak for those whose voices have been silenced and whose livelihoods are marginalized by the policies of the current University administration.
Williams decried the pay disparity between “hundreds of contract workers who may make as little as $7.25/hour” and the university’s top administrators. According to the essay, six of the state’s 10 highest-paid employees are administrators at Virginia. Williams also told the story of one employee who, despite working 40 hours a week, couldn’t afford to pay rent or utility bills.
“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,” Williams wrote. Perhaps the hunger strike and the national notoriety it has received is changing that, though. According to local news reports, University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan plans to meet with the strikers today.