UPDATE 1:10 P.M.
Virginia junior football player Joseph Williams was at the school’s library late Sunday night when he noticed another student fast asleep at one of the tables. A friend mentioned to him that the student was participating in a hunger strike organized by the university’s chapter of the Living Wage Campaign, a group with which Williams previously had been involved.
Williams sent a text message to another friend of his who he figured also was participating in the hunger strike and told her he had eaten his last meal. He too was going to join the hunger strike, which is designed to leverage university decision-makers into improving the pay of the school’s service-sector employees.
“The campaign has been active for the past 14 years, and we’ve been basically ignored for the most part by two separate administrations, countless administrators,” Williams said Friday morning in a telephone interview. “We have widespread support in the community from Charlottesville City Council and everything.
“We felt that it was time to basically escalate and hopefully get some media pressure on them so that they would feel obligated to negotiate and hopefully bring about some of the demands that we have stated.”
Among those demands are increased hourly wages, cost-of-living adjustments on an annual basis, the establishment of an oversight board and safer working conditions. Williams – who graduated from Dominion High in Sterling at age 16 and walked on to the Virginia football team at age 17 – is among the 17 students who say they will not eat again until the group’s demands are met.
A university spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment from President Teresa Sullivan.
UPDATE: In response to a request for comment, a university spokeswoman provided an e-mail President Teresa Sullivan sent to the entire university on Feb. 17, as well as a letter Pat Lampkin, the school's vice president for student affairs, hand-delivered to the LWC students on Feb. 18.
The spokeswoman also directed a reporter to prepared remarks Sullivan made Thursday to the university's Board of Visitors, in which Sullivan noted the work she has done during her 18 months as university president to raise the minimum hiring rate by $0.51 to $10.65 per hour, among other efforts to improve the financial compensation of the school’s lowest-paid employees.
“The point about these numbers is that the protest is not principally about numbers (nor about dollars),” Sullivan said in her remarks. “If it were, I would be applauded for the significant progress we made in just one year in raising our minimum hourly wage and in reducing the number of employees earning the minimum entry-level wage from 61 to 26. Rather, this protest is about who makes decisions.”
The spokeswoman said Sullivan plans to meet with representatives of the LWC students Monday morning.
Williams – who plays free safety for the Cavaliers and is listed on the team’s Web site as 5 feet 10 and 180 pounds – understands that he is risking potential damage to his standing on the football team by participating in the hunger strike. He initially did not tell his coaches about his decision, but when team officials saw him on the evening news Monday night, they called him in for a meeting the following day.
Defensive coordinator Jim Reid and another team official were concerned that Williams was not eating, the player said.
“They said I had an obligation to my team and I wasn’t necessarily fulfilling that,” Williams said. “They also expressed some disappointment in my involvement to a certain level.”
When reached on his cellphone Friday, Reid declined to comment. A team spokesman said Coach Mike London was out of town at a speaking engagement and was not immediately available for comment.
Williams last ate around 10 p.m. Sunday night – a double-quarter-pounder with cheese and some chicken nuggets at McDonald’s – and said he had lost “about nine pounds” as of Thursday. He has made sure to increase his water intake this week to try to keep himself hydrated.
After appearing in Virginia’s season-opening win over William & Mary last September, Williams suffered an ankle injury that required surgery roughly three months ago. He said he was supposed to start jogging on an underwater treadmill as part of the rehab process, but team trainers have not allowed him to do so this week “because they don’t want to take any unnecessary risks, I guess.”
Williams is not on a football scholarship; he said he receives full financial aid from the university because of his family’s economic situation. But he said he is concerned “to a certain extent” about how his participation in the hunger strike will affect his standing on the football team.
“But at the same time, that’s something I’m willing to sacrifice,” Williams said. “I’m very passionate about what I believe in, so obviously if I’m willing to give up food, there’s not a lot that’s going to be able to sway me as far as other people’s opinions of what I’m doing.”
As Williams described in a blog post he wrote Thursday for MichaelMoore.com, he and his family moved “over 30 times – including various stays in homeless shelters, the homes of family friends, and church basements” as he was growing up. He was raised by a single mother and has three siblings.
Williams said Friday that his mother and younger brother, Michael, still live in Sterling. His said his mother, Rhonda, works as “a part-time art teacher, part-time substitute teacher, do whatever she needs to do to get money into the house, I guess.”
“Growing up how I’ve grown up, I have a different outlook on life than a lot of people that haven’t experienced the same types of things that I have,” Williams said. “I have a similar point of view as far as some of the struggles that I’ve had to go through are a lot of the struggles that some of the U-Va. workers are going through now.
“Definitely, it’s a really personal cause to me, and I feel like I’m obligated to be – coming from where I’m from and being at a place of privilege where I am now, I feel like I’m obligated to stand up now for people who are in the same position that my family has been in in the past.”
Williams’s actual first name is Wonman, which he said is Korean for “full harmony.”