Fight for $15 at UT-Austin

On opening day of the 84th biennial session of the Texas Legislature, about 50 members of the Texas State Employees Union (TSEU) stood together in front of the Capitol grounds to deliver a message to lawmakers: stop privatizing state services, give all state employees a fair pay raise, and fully fund the state employee pension fund.

Some union members also carried signs demanding that the University of Texas at Austin raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour.

TSEU is part of the UT Save Our Community Coalition, a student and community coalition, that is bringing the Fight for $15 to the UT campus, located a few blocks north of the Capitol.

While much of the focus of the Fight for $15 has been on raising wages in retail and the fast food industries, many workers at UT Austin and other state universities make less than $15 an hour.

These low-wage workers provide vital services that make education possible, and many of the jobs they perform are not the kind of jobs we think of as low-wage work.

“An administrative assistant in my department makes $20,019 a year,” said Anne Lewis, a lecturer in the UT-Austin Radio, Film, and Television Department and a member of TSEU’s executive board. “These kinds of jobs are prevalent throughout UT, and most of them pay in the low 20K range.”

The hourly wage for a person making $20,019 a year is about $9.60 an hour.

“A friend of mine who was laid off after working as an oral history transcriber at UT for 30 years was making about $27,000 a year when she was laid off,” said Lewis.

The hourly wage of a person making $27,000 a year is about $13 an hour.

Some  administrative jobs at UT are filled by temporary workers hired through UT’s temporary staffing agency UTemps. Many of them make $11 to $12 an hour.

And there are many other low-paying jobs on campus.

The starting pay for the workers who clean UT’s building after students, faculty, and other staff members go home at night is $1,907 a month, or about $11 an hour, and starting pay for food preparation workers at UT’s dining halls is about $11.50 an hour.

Pay for graduate students who teach many of UT’s undergraduate courses starts at $11.27 an hour.

According to an MIT living wage calculator, a living wage in Austin for a worker with one child is more than $19 an hour.

One reason that so many workers aren’t making a living wage at UT is that there has not been an across the board cost of living pay increase in more than ten years.

“In 2003, university workers were severed from state worker pay raises,” said Lewis. “As a result when state workers have gotten cost of living raises, university workers have not.”

“Departments can give cost of living raises, but because of expensive salaries that UT is paying for newly hired executives and huge raises of high level administrators, the departments are being starved and can’t give sufficient across the board raises to keep up even if they wanted to,” said Lewis.

When the Legislature in 2003 exempted universities from giving state employee raises, it also deregulated student tuition and fees at the state’s public universities, giving university administrators a free rein to increase tuition and fees.

Since then, tuition and fees at state universities have nearly doubled and student debt in Texas has increased 61 percent.

According to UT administrators, the lack of state funding has caused a budget crisis at UT that requires higher tuition and low wages.

But the austerity measures imposed on UT’s student and workers do not extend to executives who manage the campus.

“Last summer, UT advertised a position in Shared Services with a starting pay of $14,500 a month,” said Lewis.

Shared Services is the university administration’s latest attempt to make the university operate more like a corporation.

It consolidates and centralizes services, relies on call centers rather than face-to-face contact for services, and has caused job losses at UT.

It is currently being piloted in a few departments.

Despite the highly paid executives supervising Shared Services, the results have not been good.

In November, the College of Education, one of the departments where Shared Services is being piloted, asked to be let out of the experiment because Shared Services service level was so bad.

Shared Services management team isn’t the only group of UT executives receiving over sized paychecks.

The Austin Business Journal reports that, “The University of Texas at Austin has one of the highest rates of executive pay in the nation.”

According to a report published by the Institute of Policy Studies, the average pay for UT’s top executives in 2012 was $716,644 (in 2006 dollars), and UT ranked tenth in executive pay among US public universities.

According to the Save Our Community Coalition, the top 100 earners at UT are paid $42 million a year, and the top 10 earners more than $14.9 million a year.

Members of the  Fight for $15 campaign have been calling attention to the fact that UT workers and students have been the ones making sacrifices while top UT administrators have been enriching themselves.

Right now, Fight for $15 supporters are circulating a petition that they are asking members of the UT community to sign.

On January 27 at 6:00 P.M., they’ll be screening a documentary entitled “Shadows of Liberty” about the corporate takeover of the media. The screening takes place at the Belo Center for New Media at UT.

In February, they’ll be hosting a forum where the featured speaker will be James Galbraith, the Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Chair in Government/Business Relations and Professor of Government at UT.

In March, UT TSEU members will be holding a mini-lobby day where they will make a case to lawmakers for including UT workers in state employee pay raises and increasing the minimum wage at UT to $15 an hour.

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UT cuts ties to Accenture after coalition’s organizing and mobilizing efforts; AG ups the ante on his Accenture contract

As a result of pressure from the University of Texas Save Our Community Coalition, the UT administration announced that it will be  scaling down its Shared Services project and cutting ties with Accenture, the global consulting firm that designed Shared Services.

Accenture’s plan would have eliminated 500 jobs.

In addition to cutting staff, Accenture’s plan would have funneled many requests for administrative services to a centralized call center, reducing direct contact between staff and those they serve.

The cost of implementing Shared Services would have been at least $54 million, and as the Save Our Community Coalition has demonstrated, Accenture overestimated the savings that its plan would generate.

In a related development, the Associated Press reports that another Accenture project with a Texas government agency is $64 million over budget and is in danger of not being completed on time.

At UT, the Save Our Community Coalition, a broad-based campus coalition organized by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 (TSEU), waged a 14-month long campaign aimed saving the 500 jobs slated for elimination.

The campaign included mobilizations, building a wide base of opposition to Shared Services, and confronting the administration about inconsistencies and errors in the Shared Services plan whenever possible.

At an April 23 rally, one of several rallies against Shared Services held on campus, students, faculty, and staff spoke out against Shared Services. The rally was held on the steps of the offices occupied by top UT executives.

After the rally, students walked to the office of UT President William Powers and asked to speak to him about their concerns about Shared Services.

When he refused, the students conducted a peaceful sit-in at his office, and 18 were arrested.

The announcement that UT was cutting its ties to Accenture and scaling back its Shared Services plan came about two weeks after the rally and the arrests.

In addition to the rallies, the members of the coalition succeeded in getting 100 faculty members to sign a letter to Powers expressing their opposition to Shared Services. Members of the coalition also got the Graduate Student Assembly to pass a resolution opposing implementation.

While Shared Services has been scaled back, it has not been eliminated.

UT will pilot Shared Services in the Provost’s Office and the College of Education.

After the results of the pilot have been assessed, UT will decide whether it will expand Shared Services.

Save Our Community wants to make sure that the assessment is fair and called on the administration to involve staff affected by the outcome in the planning process. It also wants qualified experts to create the metrics that will be used to evaluate results and mutually agreed on benchmarks that the pilots must meet in order to continue.

A bigger concern of the coalition is the way that UT’s search for cost savings is always limited to measures that result in layoffs, pay freezes, or benefits cuts for employees.

“The UT administration tells us we need to save money by laying off staff and eliminating positions, yet all around me I see UT expanding and investing in new construction projects,” said Sarahi Soto-Talavera, a UT student and TSEU member. “We need to stop balancing the budget on the backs of staff, and start prioritizing the people who make our campus run.”

Not far from the UT campus is the office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who agreed to a $210 contract with Accenture to design a new computer system for his Child Support Division.

In 2011, the State Auditor’s Office issued a report saying that the new computer system known as TXCSES 2.0, or T2, would be implemented in three phases. Full implementation would be complete by 2017. The first phase was on track to be completed by October 2013.

But more than six months after its scheduled implementation, the first phase has yet to be completed.

The Associated Press reports that earlier this year, a report by UT faculty members hired to monitor the project said that the T2 completion date was overly optimistic. According to the AP, it also “raised warning about substandard work that could escalate costs down the road.”

To address this problem Abbott agreed to a contract amendment that raised the cost of the project by $64 million.

Demonstators to UT: “No layoffs, privatization, or Accenture”

Workers, students, and faculty on February 7 rallied at the University of Texas at Austin campus to protest a plan to eliminate 500 UT jobs. The plan was authored by Accenture, an international company specializing in privatizing public resources.

More than 300 people gathered at and marched across the campus on a day when the opening of classes was delayed until noon because of a winter weather advisory.

“(Accenture’s) plan is for UT to spend $130 million in order to eliminate 500 UT jobs and relocate 400 other jobs into centralized call centers,” said Anne Lewis, an instructor in the UT Radio, Television, and Film Department and executive board member of the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 (TSEU) at the rally.

“The plan is the same old stuff on steroids,” Lewis continued. “Claiming austerity, (it’s)a neoliberal attack on the public sector and on public workers.  The impact is both on the nature and the day-to-day at this university.”

UT, claiming that it is facing a deficit in its operating budget, contracted with Accenture to develop a plan to redesign administrative services and save money.

Accenture’s big picture plan calls for more centralization and the privatization of services at UT.

Accenture released its Shared Services proposal, the initial phase of its long-range redesign plan, in the fall of 2013. The plan eliminates 500 administrative information technology, finance, and human resources jobs and centralizes the rest. Much of the centralized work would be done at call centers.

Shared Services and Accenture’s long-range redesign plan has sparked the ire of students, workers, and faculty, which has led to a series of public protests.

“We’ve won some victories,” said Lewis at a TSEU meeting prior to the most recent rally and march. “UT backed away from privatizing food service work, which Accenture originally proposed, and more recently, the UT administration said that it will slow down the implementation of Shared Services. But the administration is just biding its time hoping that we’ll be lulled into a sense of complacency, so that it can move ahead without so much resistance.”

The fight to halt Accenture’s ill-conceived redesign plan, is led by the Save Our Community Coalition (SOCC), composed of TSEU, Education Austin, Workers Defense Project, International Socialist Organization (ISO), Oxfam, University Leadership Initiative, Native American and Indigenous Collective (NAIC), Queer People of Color and Allies (QPOCA), Texas Fair Trade Coalition, and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).

The February rally and march coincided with a national USAS conference, and many of the participants were USAS members attending the conference.

“(We fear) that any continuing relationship with Accenture puts the university at risk,” Bianca Hinz Foley, local organizer for USAS. “The Save Our Community Coalition, a UT and community-based group, is committed to putting pressure on the UT administration to protect UT as a place that values each community member, including hard-working and dedicated staff. The group is calling on Chancellor Cigarroa and President Bill Powers to terminate all current contracts with Accenture and prevent any future relationships with the firm.”

According SOCC, Accenture has a long history of costly and failed redesign projects. Most prominent among these was Accenture’s plan to redesign and privatize Texas’ health and human services.

Texas paid Accenture more than $200 million but had to scrap its plan that relied heavily on privatized call centers because the call centers made it difficult for Texans to access health and human services such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, and food stamps.

UT workers, students, and faculty are concerned that if Accenture’s administrative redesign is implemented the quality of services provided by UT employees will decline because the close working relationship that now exists between staff and the students and faculty who they serve will be replaced by impersonal and distant call centers.

UT has justified the need for Accenture’s redesign by citing a deficit in the university’s operating budget.

But Dr. Alberto Martinez, a UT history professor, in an op ed piece appearing in the Austin American Statesman said that UT’s so-called fiscal crisis is really a crisis of misplaced priorities.

According to Martinez, UT raised $463 million last year as a result of its fund raising efforts; however, none of this money will be used to fund operations, where it is really needed.

Instead, the money was funneled into endowments and other restricted accounts.

If UT had its priorities straight, wrote Martinez. “We could solve a severe $1 million deficit in a college in just 20 hours of fund raising.”