Despite Arrests, U-Va. Students Devoted to Bettering Workers

By Carol Morello and Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 19, 2006

CHARLOTTESVILLE, April 18 -- When Kevin Simowitz volunteered at the Salvation Army last year, many of the homeless men and women he met had jobs. Some had two.

But he was surprised to learn that they worked at the University of Virginia, where the 20-year-old sophomore from Cincinnati majors in American studies. One even served food in Simowitz's dining hall.

The realization that a worker holding down two jobs might not earn enough to live on prompted Simowitz to join 16 other students in a sit-in at Madison Hall, the campus building housing senior administrators' offices. For four days and three nights, they occupied the lobby, demanding a "living wage" of $10.72 for the lowest-paid university employees.

The sit-in ended Saturday when police, acting on direct orders from university President John T. Casteen III, arrested them on trespassing charges.

"The 17," as they are now called, have been released from jail but are barred from setting foot on the grounds of Madison Hall. The pup tents on the front lawn where their supporters slept for three heady nights also were dismantled yesterday when the administration threatened to impound them.

But the protests continue, drawing dozens and sometimes hundreds of sympathizers in the largest crowds this 20,400-student university has seen since the anti-apartheid demonstrations of the 1980s. Poverty in Charlottesville is decried at daily teach-ins. In a symbolic sit-in, students will take turns sitting in 17 circles chalked on the sidewalk around Madison Hall. A new tent city is being planned.

"It's a movement that will not end until we have a living wage at this university," Simowitz said. "A lot of people are fired up about this right now."

The "academical village" founded and designed by Thomas Jefferson is just one of the latest college campuses to be galvanized by the movement for a living wage this spring. A tent city has gone up at the University of Vermont, and students at the University of Miami have gone on a fast.

And at U-Va.'s sister school, the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, students are touting the success of last year's demonstrations, which they credit for an increase in the base pay for workers.

Students from Georgetown University, where a nine-day hunger strike last year led to higher wages, are working with the Living Wage Action Coalition, which includes five campuses and helps coordinate campaigns at more than 50 others. The coalition offers training workshops and even flies student activists to other campuses. Georgetown students have visited U-Va. and other schools urging similar protests, activists said.

Emotions are particularly high at the University of Miami, where a fasting senior was taken to a hospital yesterday. Bethany Quinn of McLean, 20, another student protester existing on juice and miso soup, said she is committed to helping workers: "These are members of our community, the people who take care of our university. That deserves a lot of respect."

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