Campaign Update: Getting what we’re organized to take

Workers win pay increases, struggles for Living Wages, adequate funding and rights continue

Last fall UCW, Tennessee’s higher-education union, launched an ambitious campaign for Living Wages and a real cost of living increase, to address the insurance hikes, to win rights for higher education workers, and to demand that our public colleges and universities receive the state funding that they are owed.IB Image

Given the economic attacks all working people are facing, we knew narrow complaints alone would not only fall short, they’d actually hold our efforts back. Rather than whining that “we should be put first for a change,” we said that “All Tennesseans need good jobs, with living wages and our public services.” We pointed out that everyone deserves affordable health care, instead of solely focusing on our out-of-control health insurance costs. We spoke plainly about the institutional poverty on our campuses: staff forced to work 2nd and 3rd jobs, long-time employees still barely paid $8.00/hour, adjunct faculty hustling jobs at multiple institutions for a few hundred dollars a credit hour. We demanded adequate funding.

We reached out to students and community allies to organize speak-outs, pickets, and vigils and to send emails and make phone calls targeting the legislature, UT and TBR system officials, and the governor. And on March 15th we organized a statewide coalition that brought 1,500 people to Nashville for one of the largest weekday rallies our state capitol has seen in years.

Because of these efforts all higher-education employees won the largest raises many have ever seen! For the first time TBR instituted a system-wide flat dollar raise in addition to a 3% across the board increase. This minimum amount of $750 will affect 2,500 TBR workers making wages less than $12.82 an hour. At UT our workers won increases in base pay to $8.50, a flat minimum dollar raise of $1,000 for other employees and a 2-3% across the board pay pool.

All of this must also be understood against the backdrop of the nation-wide attacks on public workers. Even within Tennessee, let’s remember that state agency employees only received a 1.6% increase. Surely many of us remember 2006 and many other years when higher ed received smaller raises so state agency managers and others could receive special “pay plans.” So what’s different between 2006 and today? For starters, our union!

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As the saying goes, “A closed mouth never gets fed.” Needless to say, higher education workers have made sure not to keep our mouths shut. We’ve been organizing, because we know that there is power in numbers. Since 2006 our union’s membership has more than doubled, with members now on 14 higher-education campuses. And we’re not turning back until we win living wages, employment rights and real shared governance on our campuses – collective bargaining!

There remains much work to win fair grievance procedures for staff and faculty, real layoff protections, and the end to discrimination on the campuses. This year our members wrote HB 1722/SB 1751 sponsored by Rep. Barbara Cooper and Senator Ophelia Ford. This legislation would extend real rights to UT employees facing layoffs, rights on par with civil service protections. The House Education committee has asked if this matter can be address through non-legislative means. We are in touch with the sponsors and our members are planning next steps. Impending layoffs of members in the UTK Social Work Office of Research and Public Services and the department of Advancement Services remind us of the importance moving forward on these essential efforts. 

Likewise, we must continue pushing back against the constant tuition hikes to make up for cuts in state funding and to give top-paid administrators like UTK Chancellor Jimmy Cheek $27,000 raises. Our schools are public schools: they need state funding! Only by coming together and building coalitions can we win. Our union gives us a voice and united we will win!

Not a member?

United Campus Workers is Tennessee’s higher education union; the only voice made up and run by staff and faculty at Tennessee’s colleges and universities. UCW members are active organizing for our interests on our campuses and on Capitol Hill. To join, visit the UCW website at or call 1-877-292-3865 for more information. There is power in numbers, lift your voice today!