Call to action- Daily Helmsman 10/27/2010

The following article appeared in the October 27, 2010 edition of the University of Memphis Daily Helmsman.  Its covers the "Living Wage Speakout" held by United Campus Workers on the University of Memphis campus.

Call to action


By: Erica Horton

Posted: 10/27/10

Recent changes in health insurance benefits and a lack of pay raises for the past three years prompted University of Memphis employees to speak up last night at a community forum in the University Center. 

Members of United Campus Workers, Workers Interfaith Network and the Progressive Student Alliance discussed work issues at The U of M with guests like Reverend Rebekah Gienapp, executive director of Workers Interfaith Network who discussed living wages in Memphis, the Mid-South and around the country. 

Tom Smith, from the United Campus Workers - Communications Workers of America Local 3865, touched on winning living wages for higher education employees in Tennessee. Two U of M custodial workers, Emma Davis and Thelma Rimmer, also shared their experiences as employees at The U of M. 

A representative from WIN said there are people who have worked at The U of M for more than 20 years making only $7.50 an hour. 

He said some of them begin their 40-hour workweek at 4 a.m. and don't leave until late in the afternoon.

Tom Smith, UCW organizer, said that some University custodial workers, clerical workers and adjunct professors make poverty- level wages. 

"It is difficult for some of these workers to make a living without two, sometimes three jobs," he said. 

Smith said at $11.62 an hour, the living wage in Memphis, someone can support himself and a family, have a home, transportation and buy groceries. He said the figure does not include debt payments, savings or retirement. 

Davis, a single mother of two, said as a custodial worker, people look down on her and her work as if her job is not important. 

She teared up as she shared what it's like to wake up at 3 a.m. everyday to go to work and reconcile positives with the negatives of a job where she earns less than $20,000 a year. 

Davis said when her children come to her and ask for things they need for school, be they school uniform pants or money for college, it hurts when she can't provide for them. 

"I'm not complaining about my job," she said. "But I am complaining about my wages." 

Both Davis and Rimmer described working early hours and having to clean buildings where there was no air. 

Rimmer said that by the time The University's air conditioning turns on for a given day, she is tired and drenched in sweat.

"They tell us that it's good we have a job," she said. "But I need a job that pays. It's ridiculous, the money we're getting."

The duo said many of their coworkers were afraid to speak at the forum about their working conditions out of fear of losing their jobs. 

"If I have to lose my job for speaking out, so be it," Davis said. "I'll lose my job."

University Provost Ralph Faudree said the lack of wage increases in the past three years is a concern and administrators are looking at options to deal with it. 

Over the past 10 years, there have been pay increases for all employees by at least two percent, Faudree said. Some have been staff-wide raises, while others have been merit-based. Limited financial resources, however, have made it difficult to increase the now static salaries.

Funding for The University, which comes from tuition, the state, gifts and auxiliaries, has decreased roughly 30 percent from $126 million to $90 million. Though federal funding has helped support The U of M during the last two and a half years, Faudree said it will soon dry up. 

"We have less money and are dealing with more students," he said. 

Temporary faculty and staff have increased as part of the budget woes, also.

"For students, it means larger classes and less sections," he said. 

In addition to the lack of pay raises, some employees have been forced to drop their insurance plans due to a new policy, Smith said. In January, insurance premiums will increase nearly 32 percent, from $228 per month to $335.

Faudree said he did not know there were employees that had to relinquish their health care due to the increased premiums, though he recognized the effect it will have on employees of lower socioeconomic standing.

"Healthcare has come up everywhere," he said. "It's not determined by The University, it's determined by the state."

Though they have not had a formal meeting with administrators yet, Smith said UCW plans to educate the campus community about the injustices and pursue raises based on dollar amounts instead of percentages. Eventually, they hope to convince state legislature to provide more funding. 

"It's wrong for people to be paid poverty wages," he said. "Some (workers) have food stamps and government housing. If the City of Memphis can pay their employees a living wage, so can The University of Memphis."

Smith said at the end of the day, it all comes down to power, so UCW is also helping employees organize a union. 

"If folks don't organize, it will always be this way," he said. 

Speakers at the forum said members of the administration were invited to the event. Several professors and members of the Faculty Senate were present.

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