Tennessee University Workers Expose Privatization Scheme


The following is adapted from an article published yesterday in Labor Notes by Melanie Barron and Jeffrey Lichtenstein.

Over the past 17 years, United Campus Workers (Communications Workers Local 3865) has built a non-majority, wall-to-wall union. Anyone working for a public university in Tennessee can join—and over 1,600 have. Members include custodians, college deans, and everything in between. Since public employees in the state are denied the right to bargain, UCW works to make changes without a contract by campaigning on specific issues one by one.

“This model is a necessity in Tennessee,” said Josh Smyser, a longtime union member and rank-and-file leader in the mailroom at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He sees the state’s governing alliance of big business and right-wing politicians as a “new Confederacy,” using racism to divide the public and push through anti-union laws. “We organize and fight as if we were behind enemy lines,” Smyser said. “Because we are.”

Despite the tough environment, the union has won repeated raises to the wage floor—up to $9.50 at Knoxville and $10.10 at the University of Memphis—and health and safety improvements, such as university-paid hepatitis vaccinations for custodial workers. More recently, it built a state coalition called “Put the People First” that slowed right-wing attacks against workers’ comp, campus safety, and diversity funding for college students. These relationships became important precursors to our anti-privatization campaign.

In August 2015 the union learned of a massive privatization scheme being concocted by Governor Bill Haslam.  Haslam, with a net worth of $2 billion, is America’s richest elected politician. His family owns the Pilot Flying J chain of truck stops. In 2014 he began taking quiet steps to outsource more than 10,000 state workers. Several well-paid consultants joined his administration, including one who gets paid more per hour than any other state employee. They began work in the little-known, slickly titled Office of Customer Focused Government. Under the unprecedented plan they cooked up management and maintenance of literally every piece of state property would be privatized—campuses, parks, even armories—costing the jobs of 1 in 5 state workers.

UCW leaked the plan to the press and launched a campaign called “Tennessee Is Not for Sale.”  A town-hall phone call for members attracted hundreds of participants. Days later, 200 workers, students, and community allies lined the main avenue that cuts across the flagship campus in Knoxville. The union brought some signs and banners, but the best ones came from facilities workers, who showed up to the Thursday-afternoon rally in uniform.  Images of the protest circulated on Facebook and in the news. Members held signs on university sidewalks in Memphis and Johnson City.  Sympathetic lawmakers did a “fact-finding tour,” visiting campuses in Knoxville and Chattanooga where they invited workers to speak on panels about the governor’s scheme. A paper and online petition drew 6,000 signatures.

At every opportunity, members confronted the governor personally and posted the videos on social media. We tracked him down at events where he might have expected a friendly crowd—including a Chamber of Commerce meeting, the opening of a new business institute at UT, and even his high school alma mater’s homecoming football game.

The work culminated on March 8, when 100 union members converged on the Capitol steps with students and allies from environmental, health care, and workers’ rights groups. They rallied, they lobbied—and then they occupied a hallway outside a Senate committee room where outsourcing operatives were scheduled to talk. Union members unfurled three giant rolls of paper, dozens of feet long, with thousands of petition signatures. Chanting workers and students took up the rest of the space.


United Campus Workers unfurl a petition dozens of feet long in the halls of the state Capitol. Photo: Holly Rainey

Later, members packed the same committee room and were gratified to hear several legislators, including Republicans, speak out against the outsourcing. UCW had split the state’s ruling coalition on this issue.

“We forced Republican members of the legislature to side with their constituents,” said Dalton Brown, a leader in the carpentry shop at the UT Health Science Center in Memphis. “Whatever plan the governor may have had to get the legislature to give him some cover from the clear popular and media opposition—that was gone.”

Although these actions foiled Haslam’s attempt to ram through the scheme in secret, the fight continues, as the governor has taken to defending the proposal in public.  Originally the outsourcing would have been implemented already, in July. Now the contract is expected to be signed next February, and implementation could begin as soon as March.

To learn more about the fight against privatization in Tennessee and help UCW win, organizations can sign a solidarity pledge here.

Melanie Barron, a doctoral student in geography at UT Knoxville, recently joined UCW staff as an organizer and researcher. Jeffrey Lichtenstein, another longtime UCW member, is between campus jobs.


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