Texas State Employees Union fights for the public good in higher education

Members of the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 University Caucus are urging the public to join their Fund Our Future campaign by signing their online petition at Change.org.

The campaign is aimed at making the public good rather than private interest the primary goal of higher education in the state. “For decades now private interest has driven higher education policy in Texas,” said Ted Hooker, TSEU organizer. “The result has been higher costs for students and their families at state universities, more privatization on university campuses, lower pay and less job security for front-line university employees, and a crippled higher education system that isn’t meeting the needs of the Texas public.”

At one time, Texas invested heavily in higher education. In 1986, state funding accounted for 55 percent of all funding for state higher education institutions. The result was low tuition that made a college education affordable and accessible. This investment helped the Texas economy to grow.

But in the 1990s, the Texas government began to disinvest in public higher education. By 2006, state funds provided only 35 percent of the funding for Texas’ public higher education institutions. The percentage was even lower for large campuses. State funding for the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M dipped below 20 percent.

To make up for this funding shortfall, Texas universities sought out more private funding and raised student tuition and fees. In 2003, the Legislature deregulated student tuition resulting in a steady and steep increase in the cost of higher education.

The Dallas Morning News reports that since 2003 students and their families are paying 55 percent more in tuition and fees at Texas’ public universities.

Reduced state funding also caused universities to seek other ways to cut budgets. Front line workers at these universities have borne the brunt of these cuts.

At one time, the state included university workers in cost-of-living pay raises given to state employees. That stopped in 2003 at the same time that tuition was being deregulated.

As a result, pay for campus workers has stagnated.

“The lowest paid state worker in Texas is a university worker,” said Anne Lewis, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin and an independent documentary film maker.

One reason that pay has stagnated is that cost-of-living raises have been replaced by so-called merit raises, which are often arbitrary and unfair.

“A few years ago, an edict went down that one-third of the department workers would get a decent raise, another one-third would get a pittance, and the final one-third would get nothing,” said Lewis. “My department figured out a way around this but many did not.  I know more than one department enforced this policy.  A worker I know has not had a raise in four years.”

“A young friend of mine who’s worked at UT for about ten years made $23,000 a year when she started, and now she makes $26,000,” said Leslie Cunningham, a TSEU activist.

In addition to seeking more state funding for higher education, TSEU’s Fund Our Future campaign is seeking to include university workers in pay raises that state employees may be getting this year.

Texas state universities are also hoping to save money by privatizing more of their services.

“UT- Austin, Texas State, the University of Texas at San Antonio, the University of Houston, Prairie View A&M and others have announced plans to follow in the footsteps of Texas A&M and privatize campus support services,” said Hooker.  “Last year, Texas A&M laid off 1,600 food service, landscaping, custodial, and maintenance workers – outsourcing their jobs to Compass Group, USA.  While many of these workers were able to secure employment with Compass, they lost their state health care and retirement benefits.”

The Fund Our Future campaign is also aimed at stopping this privatization.

“(The university workforce) should operate as a collective within the university and all contributions in service of the institution should be recognized as valuable,” reads a statement by the TSEU University Caucus. “Privatization fractures that cohesiveness by banishing vital operators from the community and sending the message that those contributions are not valuable.”

TSEU and several other groups of UT-Austin students and university workers are organizing opposition to a UT-Austin privatization plan authored by the private consulting company Accenture, a Bermuda-based company tha botched an attempt to privatize Texas’ health and human services.

The Fund Our Future campaign has also been conducting a grassroots mobilization effort to increase the state’s funding for higher education. In 2011, the state’s higher education budget was cut by nearly $1 billion. Fund Our Future is seeking a restoration of the funds cut and more public investment in higher education.

The campaign has had some impact, but the proposed budgets by the Senate and House doesn’t fully make up for the 2011 cuts and doesn’t provide extra funding for the expected higher enrollment.

“The online petition is another attempt to keep lawmakers focused on the need to adequately fund higher education,” Hooker said. “We’re also planning other mobilizations such as a call-in and day of action. Whatever happens during this session of the Legislature, TSEU will continue to organize and mobilize for more higher education funding. Our jobs and livelihoods depend on it. So does the future of Texas.”

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