VCU union members march to raise awareness for their demands VCU union members march to raise awareness for their demands

University faculty, staff and students join together to form the first union of its kind in Richmond.

RICHMOND-Workers at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), the second-largest public university in the Commonwealth, are organizing a “wall-to-wall labor union” to represent faculty, staff, and student workers. 

The union, which will be a chapter of the United Campus Workers of Virginia (UCWVA), grew out of VCU Adjuncts Organizing for Fair Pay (VAOFP). VAOFP has been advocating for better working conditions on campus for over three years.

According to a statement from the union, VAOFP “voted unanimously to unionize in March of 2021” after they delivered demands for better compensation and stable contracts to university administration. The administration never responded to those demands, instead referring them to the Faculty Senate for evaluation.

The unionization drive comes in the midst of a renaissance in campus labor organization. At the University of Virginia (UVA), a UCWVA chapter has moved to organize hospital workers in the UVA health system. And, the William and Mary Worker’s Union is fighting against the firing of some adjunct faculty there.

‘The VCU That We All Deserve’

The union was officially inaugurated with a rally in Monroe Park, at the heart of VCU’s Richmond campus. Many students, enjoying the warm Spring day in the park, gathered alongside supporters of the union to listen as speakers laid out their vision for the future of labor organization on campus.

“We came together because of the deeply held belief that we empower each other and we can transform this university into the VCU that we all deserve,” said Kristin Reed, a union member and associate professor at VCU.

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Union organizers teach attendees chants in preparation for a march

Many speakers and supporters had previously been involved with VAOFP, which will now act as the adjunct sub-committee of the union. Rose Szabo is one of these members, and they drew a direct line between that earlier organizing and the current union’s formation.

A Living Wage For All VCU Workers

“VCU administration has repeatedly refused to pay adjuncts a living wage representative of the cost of living in Richmond,” Szabo said. “However, adjuncts are not alone in this. Many full-time faculty members do not make a living wage by our calculations either.”

According to the university, VCU is the largest employer in Richmond. In total, 23,382 people work for VCU and the VCU Health System. That includes 709 full-time classified staff members and 2,909 full-time university and academic professionals. VCU also employs 2,501 full-time faculty members and 692 part-time faculty members.

The living wage for a single adult with no children in Richmond is $31,900 a year. That’s according to the MIT living wage calculator. Under the new budget proposed by VCU President Michael Rao, adjunct professors would make just $1,200 per credit. That’s only $28,800 a year with a full course load.

That falls far below the recommendation of the administration’s own task force on adjunct faculty. And, it’s less than half of the Richmond living wage, $60,380, for a worker supporting a child, according to MIT. 

According to Payscale, which aggregates self-reported employee compensation data, full-time staff at VCU make an average of $53,000. That also falls below the living wage for a worker supporting a child in Richmond, according to MIT’s calculator. Because VCU does not publicize compensation data, it isn’t possible to verify this figure.

Students at VCU Also Impacted

Union members say students also feel the effects of the university’s lack of investment in its employees. Szabo highlighted the impact that poor working conditions and inadequate compensation have on the quality of instruction.

“How can [our students] learn to their full potential from overworked teachers living in poverty? How can they be supported well by a staff that’s being mistreated?” said Szabo.

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Lux Aghomo, a VCU freshman, criticizes the university for failing to provide equity in instructor compensation

Candidates Lend Their Support

The union also drew support from two Democratic hopefuls, Delegate Sam Rasoul and former Delegate Jennifer Carrol Foy.

Rasoul is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He’s also currently running in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. At the rally, he spoke about his own background inspiring him to champion workers rights.

“For me, growing up in a working class family, it means we have got to be bold and say workers deserve a seat at the table to make their demands and be heard. And that’s what’s happening here today,” said Rasoul. “And in the GA, when you start marching down that way, I’ve got your back too,” Rasoul said.

The candidate vowed to repeal Virginia’s anti-union “right to work” laws, whether as a delegate or as lieutenant governor.

Jennifer Carrol Foy, a Democratic candidate for governor, expressed her support for the union in a statement.

“I stand in solidarity with our United Campus Workers, and as governor, I will ensure a true collective bargaining bill that includes all public sector employees,” said Foy.

Looking Towards the Future of VCU

The rally concluded with a march out of Monroe Park and down Main Street, through the busiest areas of VCU. Even as the attendees chanted slogans like “The workers united will never be defeated” and “Get up, get down, Richmond is a union town,” organizers were looking ahead to the coming months of struggle that will be needed to gain recognition from the administration.

That schedule includes panels aimed at educating the community on labor issues. There are also social events, and a rally at Abner Clay Park in Jackson Ward. The rally on May 1st and coincides with May Day, which many countries use to celebrate “International Workers Day”.

VCU administration did not respond to a request for comment.

Jakob Cordes is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach him at info@vadogwood.com.