Big win for “Tennessee Is Not For Sale” campaign

Leaders of four campuses that belong to the University of Tennessee System announced on October 31 that they would not participate in the state’s plan to privatize the jobs of workers who provide grounds keeping, maintenance, and landscaping services at their campuses.

The campuses rejecting the state privatization plan are the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, the University of Tennessee Martin, the University of Tennessee Knoxville, and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis.

Under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam, the state of Tennessee has proposed privatizing facilities management services at all state universities, prisons, and parks.

In April, the state selected Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), a multinational real estate company, to manage the privatization of these services.

But a vigorous “Tennessee Is Not For Sale” campaign led by United Campus Workers CWA Local 3865 (UCW) raised questions about the secret process that led to the selection of JLL, the unsupported claims that privatization would save money, and the improbable claims that no state employees would lose their jobs or benefits as a result of privatization.

Beverly Davenport, chancellor of the University of Tennessee Knoxville, said that her decision not to participate “was based on the extensive analyses of the financial considerations, the complexity of the work done on our research-intensive campus, and our commitment to the East Tennessee economy and our workforce.”

UCW called the decision not to participate in Gov. Haslam’s privatization scheme, “a victory for all of us here who made calls, sent emails, attended meetings and protests, lobbied their legislators, and so much more.”

Two years ago, Gov. Haslam, a billionaire described by the Intercept as ” the richest US elected official not named Donald Trump,” began laying the groundwork for the next phase of his ambitious privatization plans.

He organized a group high ranking state agency officials to plan the massive outsourcing project that would directly affect 10,000 grounds keepers, custodians, clerks, and skilled maintenance workers when fully implemented.

For months, they met in secret. When they were ready to write the request for proposals seeking bids for the project, they asked representatives of three companies that were likely to bid on project’s contract to help them write the proposal.

One of those companies was JLL.

In addition to helping write the request for proposal, JLL had another advantage that would make it the favorite to win the contract worth $330 million over five years.

Gov. Haslam had at one time been a JLL investor, and according to the Nashville Post, “it’s unclear whether or not he still holds stock in the company.”

The governor’s office said that Haslam has put his JLL investments in a blind trust.

To no one’s surprise, JLL in April was selected for the privatization project.

As soon as Gov. Haslam’s latest outsourcing plan was made public in 2015, UCW members began talking directly to state lawmakers to explain the impact that privatization would have on jobs in the lawmakers’ districts.

As a result, lawmakers from both parties raised concerns about lost jobs and the questionable practices that led up to the selection of JLL.

Over the next two years UCW members held demonstrations on campuses across the state, gathered signatures on petitions, wrote letters, and explained to the fellow workers what was at stake.

Their message was simple: “Privatization is a bad deal for the public. It’s bad for public employees whose jobs are lost. . . ,(and) it’s bad for taxpayers, who lose accountability and oversight of their tax dollars as shadowy multinational corporations take over.”

Supporters of the privatization effort said that no workers would lose their jobs or their benefits, but UCW members said that there were plenty of loopholes in JLL’s contract  that would lead to lesser pay, lesser benefits, and the loss of jobs.

The contract only requires that workers affected by privatization be provided total equal compensation, which means that the company could eliminate the workers’ pension and replace it with a 401(k) type savings plan as long as the company said that the two plans were of equal value.

Workers could also lose their jobs if the company decided to reduce staff. The contract requires that the company offer workers affected by staff reductions a similar position at another facility within a 50-mile radius. A  50-mile commute would be difficult if not impossible for many of the workers affected.

In addition, the contract requires workers to pass a battery of company tests before they will be retained, and it creates a two-tiered work environment because newly hired workers and workers with fewer than six months on the job can be paid less and receive fewer benefits.

The decision by the four campuses not to participate in Gov. Haslam’s privatization scheme was also a big victory for the 1100 workers whose public service jobs were saved, but it’s not the end of the fight.

“We still have a fight to make sure all our jobs are protected,” said UCW.

In all there are 12 other public university campuses. One has already privatized facility management services, but the others have yet to make a decision. There are also a number of state prisons and state parks that have yet to make a decision.

Nevertheless, UCW members are savoring their victory.

“Today’s news signals relief for the thousands of UT employees across the state whose jobs were imperiled by the plan,” said UCW. “Millions of square feet of real estate and tens of millions of dollars will stay in the public interest.”

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Tennessee adjunct faculty and graduate students join the Fight for $15

Adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville on April 15 joined fast food and other low-wage workers at a local McDonald’s to demand that the minimum wage be raised to $15 an hour.

After rallying with their low-wage cohorts, the higher education workers board a freedom ride bus bound for St. Louis where they joined more low-wage workers participating in the national general strike for a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

The participating adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants are members of United Campus Workers (UCW), a statewide union of faculty, graduate students, and classified staff who make higher education work but are paid poverty and near-poverty wages. UCW is affiliated with the Communication Workers of America.

UCW members had planned to organize a Teach Out on poverty wages in the US as show of solidarity with the April 15 general strike, but inclement weather forced them to make other plans.

“We’re standing together with fast food workers this April 15‬ as they help lead the fight for $15 and a‪ u‬nion,” said a message on the UCW website announcing the Teach Out and other support activity for the Fight for $15. “Our state leads the country in poverty wage jobs–from fast food workers to adjuncts, custodians, and secretaries on our campuses. It’s going to take solidarity to win.”

UCW had urged faculty to show their solidarity with the striking low-wage workers by teaching their classes out of doors on April 15 and using a portion of their class time to educate students about why 60,000 low-wage workers and their supporters in more than 200 US cities were striking for a $15 an hour minimum wage.

UCW even prepared a lesson plan on the low-wage economy to assist those who wanted to participate in the Teach Out.

One of the main points in the lesson plan is that low-wage work is no longer a tiny fraction of the overall economy. Low-wage work is spreading throughout the economy, and a college degree no longer guarantees decent paying work.

In fact many highly educated people are working at UT Knoxville and other universities in Tennessee for very low wages.

Adjunct faculty at UT Knoxville are paid on average $2,700 per course per semester, says the lesson plan. “If an adjunct teaches three courses a semester, her income would fall below the poverty line.”

These poverty wages are the result of the UT Knoxville administration’s attempt to reduce labor costs after state leaders reduced funding for higher education, so that they wouldn’t have to raise taxes on the wealthy.

Unfortunately, lower labor costs have not resulted in lower tuition for students. Since 2008, tuition and fees at UT Knoxville have increased by 79 percent.

Students may think that they can avoid poverty wages by choosing the right major and landing a good paying job. Unfortunately, those good paying jobs are a small share of the overall job market.

The largest share of today’s job market are low-wage jobs such as those in the retail, hospitality, health care, and social services sectors of the economy.

John Schmid reporting for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes about the rise of the low-wage economy.  According to Schmid, there is some growth in good paying jobs among high tech workers, but low-wage jobs “have broadened outward like a pyramid with a disproportionately wide base.”

In St. Louis, where the Knoxville freedom ride ended, workers at a McDonald’s walked off the job and were cheered by a crowd of supporters holding signs reading Show Me $15, the name of the organization leading the Fight for $15 in Missouri.

Later in the day about 1,000 St. Louis fast food, retail, child care, and health care workers joined adjunct faculty and students for a rally and march at Washington University.

With low-wage work becoming the norm, the fight for a decent minimum wage is now more important than ever.

“This is a fight for equal opportunity, dignity, gender pay equality, and racial justice,” said UCW about the Fight for $15 on its website. “It’s a fight for what’s right. And it’s going to take all of us. We’re already turning the tide in favor of working people and our families, on campus and across this state.”