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A Different Voice

Steve Fisher



Poverty Wages


The presidents of Virginia's major universities are doing little to ensure that all their employees are paid a living wage. 


John T. Casteen, Charles W. Steger, Eugene P. Trani, Paul S. Trible, Jr., Alan G. Merten, Roseann O. Runte.


What do these six people have in common? They are all presidents of universities in Virginia - the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University, Christopher Newport University, George Mason University and Old Dominion University, respectively.


What else do they have in common? Their compensation packages provide them with more than $364,000 a year (with Casteen's being $690,000), and the institutions that they head are major employers in the communities in which they are located.


And what else? All six have shown a lack of leadership when it comes to making sure that all their employees are paid a living wage. Nobody working full-time should live in poverty. A living wage allows for the dignity of workers. If we decide that a job should be done -- whether it's cleaning a dorm or mowing the grass -- we should be willing to pay a living wage for that work. Unfortunately, this is not the case at the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University, Christopher Newport University, George Mason University and Old Dominion University.


Let's think about this for a second. If John Casteen discovers he needs a new pair of glasses, he wouldn't hesitate to go out and buy them. If Charles W. Steger's refrigerator isn't working, he would have no trouble finding the money to have it fixed. If Eugene P. Trani needs an antibiotic for his sinus infection, he doesn't have to figure out if he can afford the co-pay. If Paul S. Trible, Jr. realizes that his car needs a tune-up, he doesn't have to consider whether there's money in the family budget to get it done this month. If Alan G. Merten needs a new winter jacket, he won't hesitate for a moment to get one. If Roseann O. Runte's home computer has problems, she wouldn't hesitate to call her local computer guru to figure out what's wrong.


Yet, if the cafeteria workers who feed the students or the custodians who are cleaning the buildings at their universities are making less than a living wage, they will have to think long and hard about whether they are able to afford any of these purchases or repairs.


In 1906, John A. Ryan wrote in "A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspsects": "The great majority of fair-minded persons believe, indeed, that labor does not get its full share of the wealth that it helps to create, but they are not agreed as to the precise measure of that ideal share. Upon one principle of partial justice unprejudiced men are, however, in substantial agreement. They hold that wages should be sufficiently high to enable the laborer to live in a manner consistent with the dignity of a human being."


Unfortunately, 100 years later, these university presidents do not subscribe to this principle of partial justice. Rather, they sit in their comfortable offices seemingly content with the fact that many of their employees, whose hard work is so essential to the smooth functioning of their institutions, are not paid a wage that is enough to support a basic standard of living.


Think of the message that these presidents are sending the students who are enrolled in our state universities: It is perfectly acceptable to exploit those very people whose dedication and hard work help make their education possible and their lives easier. No one who works full-time in the United States of America should live in poverty!


If you share that belief, I urge you to contact these university presidents and tell them to stop their immoral act of paying poverty wages.


-- March 20, 2006

















Steve Fisher is involved in a living wage campaign at Emory & Henry College in Emory. His e-mail address is 

[email protected].