With all of the trappings, one might have confused the toilet bowl rally yesterday for a 'living wage' summit.
Certainly the ingredients were there: representatives from three groups of living wage activists [Citizens Against Global Exploitation (C.A.G.E.), Labor Action Group (L.A.G.) and the Virginia Organizing Project (V.O.P.)]; the president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, a smiling Charlottesville city councilor, reporters and photojournalists from several newspapers and local television stations and last, but not least, the Charlottesville chief of police.
Living wage activists called the press conference to dramatize the plight of low wage employees and to urge Chamber of Commerce officials to reevaluate their negative stance toward a living wage.
The action began when "Proponents of a 'living wage' planted three dirty toilets outside the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce's office Tuesday [July 31, 2001] and offered business representatives, and anyone else, $6.50 an hour to clean them.
'They don't understand what it means to make poverty wages,' protester Andrew Holden said of chamber officials as he stood in front of the toilets on the sidewalk facing East Market Street.
'We're out here trying to get them to come out and get an idea of what it's actually like to work - to clean toilet bowls, in this case - for $6.50 an hour. If they don't, then I think they've made our point for us'" (Reed Williams, The Daily Progress, August 1, 2001).
Instead, chamber president Timothy Hulbert offered participants lemonade and oatmeal cookies and invited representatives of the living wage group in for a private meeting.
In the meantime, Andrew Holden led demonstrators in a pep rally, members of the media conducted interviews and concerned citizen Hoy Loper chatted up the Charlottesville Chief of Police.
Earlier, Nicholas Graber-Grace met with police chief Long 'to make sure the protest setup was legal and that the toilets were not blocking the sidewalk'" (Reed Williams, The Daily Progress, August 1, 2001).
After assessing the situation, police chief Timothy J. Longo seemed to be well satisfied and moved on down the street.
The meeting with chamber president Hulbert lasted about thirty minutes, after which Graber-Grace "shared his version of the meeting with an audience of about a dozen people.
'They do not support a living wage. They are unwilling to say that paying poverty wages is unjust. They are unwilling to say that their payment of poverty wages is against the American way,' Graber-Grace said. 'They were not willing to take our challenge of scrubbing a toilet.' ....
Hulbert said that Graber-Grace did not ask him or anyone else in his office to clean the commodes, and that he did not know if he would have done it. 'We have enough toilets to scrub,' he said.
'We have three here and [I have] two at home. I'm not particularly inclined to participate in a choreographed stunt, but they're lovely people. They're well-intentioned and committed.' ....
Hulbert repeated that the chamber supports the notion of higher wages for low-income workers, but that the path to achieving that goal lies in education and job training, not 'wage fixing.'
And though he called the choice of toilets for props a 'head butt' to the chamber, Hulbert indicated that the discussion was productive.
'I believe when people are talking and, more importantly, when they are listening, things, by definition, get better,' Hulbert said" (Reed Williams, The Daily Progress, August 1, 2001).
So how about those toilets? Charlottesville City Councilor Kevin Lynch was the only person to take up the challenge.
According to Reed Williams with The Daily Progress, "Lynch, who said he made $6 an hour as a janitor 20 years ago, did participate in the toilet cleaning. After two decades, he said, the wage for a typical janitor or hotel housekeeper in Charlottesville area is only 50 cents higher.
'In that same period of time, the in-state tuition at UVa has gone up about four times,' he said. 'I think as a society, it's more tough to break into the middle class then it was 20 years ago, and we need to address that.'"
For the most part, the rally was a quiet, laid back affair. With the exception of a few words from a megaphone and a few toots from passing vehicles, the loudest sound I heard was the silence of any change in attitudes of participants toward a living wage.
A few chants, a few dance steps, a few cheers, but no recognizable movement toward agreement.