UCW has launched an open letter calling on Governor Bill Lee to include higher education employees in COVID-19 vaccine distribution plans. 

Memphis, TN - On Tuesday, University of Memphis President Rudd emailed all campus workers announcing a commitment to increase the minimum wage to $15/hour effective June 5, 2021.

UCW Members are invited to join "Labor & Black Struggle in the South," an urgent conversation about the role of Labor and the transformational possibilities of buildin

Dr. King’s powerful message of economic, racial, and social justice is an important inspiration for the work we’re doing in our union everyday—for workers’ rights, for justice on our campuses, and for our many communities. March in Knoxville's MLK Day Parade in the morning, and come celebrate and get inspired to get your year off right that evening!

Members from UCW in Memphis, where MLK was assassinated while fighting for a living wage, have been invited as guests of honor, and our speaker will be Stewart Acuff, who also spoke at our statewide convention. Read more about Mr. Acuff here.

Main dish provided (BBQ!)
Potluck sides and desserts
Music & Prizes
Childcare provided
Wheelchair accessible

Co-sponsored with Jobs With Justice of East Tennessee: Facebook group, website


Join us that morning in the MLK Memorial March Parade!
Monday, January 20
Meet at 9am, Stepoff at 10am
YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center, 124 S. Cruze Street, 37915
We will line up on Martin Luther King, Jr Ave near Tabernacle Baptist Church

(Look for the UCW banner!)

Read more about the days leading up to Dr. King's assassination and the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis, TN here:

All Knoxville-area events:

For more info: [email protected], 865-329-0085; Day of: 617-304-1108

After thirteen years of calling on the University of Tennessee to seriously tackle the problem of poverty wages on its campuses, members of United Campus Workers, the union of staff and faculty at the state’s public colleges and universities, are cautiously celebrating. Today, UT agreed to raise its base pay to $9.50/hour for all full and part time regular employees by June 2014.

“This is a really important first step,” said Karly Safar, member of UCW and a secretary at UT. “There’s a long way to go to get everyone more than a check or two ahead of disaster. We’ve been working to get rid of poverty wages on campus for so long, and today we can be satisfied that our efforts are beginning to pay off.”

Indeed, it was in the year 2000 that UT’s Faculty Senate conducted a study that identified $9.50/hour plus benefits to be the minimum that regular employees needed to earn in order to make ends meet. The study called the $9.50 figure “the most conservative yet still defensible estimate…of what it would take to provide basic necessities and a life with dignity for a family of four in Knoxville.”

Founding members of the union who have since retired from full time work at UT remember calling for $9.50 an hour in 2000. Some of them return in the summers to work as temporary dorm custodians making $7.50, below even the current base pay.

Thirteen years later, that figure is $12.50/hour. The union’s calculations indicate that bringing the 1,550 regular campus employees who make less than a living wage up to $25,000 would cost just 1% of UT’s salary expenses.

“We provide a valuable public service to Tennesseans, and we’ve earned the right to be treated with respect and dignity,” said Tom Anderson, UCW President and UTK Facilities Services employee.

“We’re glad they’ve listened to us. The truth of the matter is that $9.50 just isn’t enough to make ends meet anymore. It’s a good step, but there’s still ground to cover.”

United Campus Workers began campaigning for a living wage just over a decade ago, and continues to bring together staff, faculty, students, and community allies in its campaign for living wages and public services in the state.

“Our motto is, ‘A full time job should keep you out of poverty, not in it,’” said Anderson. “It’s good to know that UT’s hearing us say it.”


2010-2011 Living Wage Study by UTK Faculty Senate:

Living Wage Fact Sheet, first Living Wage Study in 2000:

The Minimum We Can Do:

What Families Need to Get By, Economic Policy Institute:

UCWs members took part in a unique, concentrated organizing training held in Jackson, MS in mid-October. Joining together with dozens of public workers from other CWA locals from Mississippi, Florida, New Jersey, New York, and California, the participants learned about and then practiced principles of union organizing, including how to talk to coworkers and move them to action.

"The OI was a great opportunity to learn new organizing skills and to get to know other union member activists from across the country," said Melanie Barron, a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Geography at UT Knoxville. "I have a better understanding of the importance of building genuine, solid relationships with my coworkers as I’m organizing on the job, and I feel emboldened and ready to make our union stronger—one member at a time."

Liz Roberson, assistant to the vice president for public, health care and education workers, Lisa Kermish, vice president of University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE-CWA Local 9119), and Brenda Scott, president of Mississippi Alliance of State Employees (MASE-CWA), led workshops, and UCW lead organizer Tom Smith and organizer Cassie Watters presented sections as well.

"I came away from the organizing institute feeling equipped and able to spread our union's message, and to confidently and knowledgeably build our union. The institute's trainers and staff, whose enduring patience and hard work focused simply on seeing each of us succeed, were responsible for giving me the needed tools. I whole-heartedly want to thank each and every one of them," said Michael Kuley, Research Assistant II in the Water Center at Tennessee Technological University.

After the training they visited City of Jackson Public Works workers and talked to them about the importance of building their voice, and listened to their stories and concerns. "The organizing training was really exciting for me," said Sheryl Allen, UCW organizer. "The best part was when we went to the job and all of us were working together to talk to city workers. We need lots more of that!"

Over the past several weeks we all have received a number of emails from the administration, and are likely hearing more from the media, our supervisors, colleagues, and friends concerning the purported $20+ million budget gap our university is facing. In response to this disconcerting budgetary situation, our new administration is strongly recommending "responsibility centered management" and an overall administrative and organizing restructuring.

As our union’s organizing committee said in a letter many faculty received this week, the speculative restructuring we have been hearing about speaks clearly to many of us as a deliberate move towards the privatization of our public institution. This application of a corporate model to our university not only threatens the security of our employment but also the quality and cost of the “product” we offer (education) and the experience and outcome of our target “consumer” (the student). At the end of the day, no amount of “right-sizing,” “cost-cutting,” “effectiveness and efficiency” will replace honest-to-goodness public investment in the future of our state through robust expenditures on public education.

Although it may feel as if decisions have already been made and the course to our future laid, in fact the real outcomes of these proposed changes will depend greatly upon our actions over the coming weeks and throughout this academic year. We are not content to see our institution move backwards and we invite you to join us in encouraging an alternative vision.

To this end we are hosting an informal public forum, Public Higher Education in the Age of Austerity, this Friday, September 27th from 12:30-1:30pm in room 308 of the UC. This event will provide information about the funding formula, similar restructuring proposals elsewhere in higher education, and concrete specifics and next steps concerning our situation here at U of M. Please attend and encourage co-workers to come with you for this important discussion.

Please help spread the word to all your colleagues, whether or not they belong to the union, by forwarding this statement or sharing its content with co-workers.

Additionally, we encourage all members to attend and participate actively in the open Town Hall meetings being hosted by university administration next week.

Finally, we know that only through organization and action can we improve our job future. Please consider joining the union’s organizing committee to help grow the union's power, plan future events and develop future statements concerning these matters. The union belongs to you, we can never accomplish more than what we set out to achieve together. If you are interested in the committee, please contact Tom Smith, 1-877-292-3865 (toll free cell) or by email.


Defined Benefit/DB side:

State employees contribute for the first time: 5% of salary

State (employer): 4% of payroll

Defined Contribution/DC side:

State employees contribute: 2% of salary with an opt-out feature

State (employer): 5% of salary


What does this mean? It means that new hires coming into higher education will have a worse benefit package than current workers have with the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System/TCRS, the largest retirement plan for higher education employees, which was recently voted #1 in the country. It means that the current pension plan will not receive contributions that would have come from future new hires.


The Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System serves about 210,500 active employees and 122,500 retirees. Tennessee largely avoided a funding crisis for TCRS through sound economic planning, choosing conservative investments, and making regular pension contributions. Many other states spent the late 1990s and early 2000s making speculative investments and skipping pension payments. As a result the gap between current reserves and future liabilities for those plans grew, ultimately reaching crisis proportions with the economic crisis in 2008. In response many employers, both public and private have introduced so-called “hybrid plans.” But studies are finding that these two-tier retirement plans, where new employees are diverted into a contribution-based plan and vested employees remain in the traditional pension, are actually increasing the funding gap for the pension, ultimately leading some plans to renege on retirement promises.


Defined benefit plans are an integral part of retirement income security. This is true both for the employee and employer. The value to employees is well known: the income from these types of pensions is guaranteed and therefore secure and predictable. But for employers, DB plans are the most cost efficient retirement income vehicle. This is because 1) these plans pool the longevity risks of large numbers of individuals, which allow them to avoid the “oversaving” inherent in DC plans (the study mentioned below found a savings of 15% as compared with a typical DC plan); 2) DB plans do not age, and so take advantage of diversified returns over the course of an individual’s lifetime (study showed a savings of 5%); and 3) DB plans achieve greater investment returns as compared with DC plans that are made of individual accounts, in part because they are professionally managed (savings of 26%). The study “A Better Bang for the Buck: The Economic Efficiencies of Defined Benefit Pension Plans” showed that the cost to deliver the same level of retirement income to a group of employees is 46% lower in a DB plan than it is in a DC plan.


Because TCRS is funded with taxpayer dollars, United Campus Workers argued in a March 25 letter to Governor Haslam that insufficient attention was paid to the costs associated with proposed “reforms” and that rather than push for an expedited approach, each should be submitted to an actuary to measure the costs and make that information available to the public.

UCW Member and MTSU Chapter VP Rick Kurtz speaks at 2013 Lobby Day on the pension bill and its implications for us

IB Image

From a February 25 UCW press release: "Honestly, these proposals feel more philosophical than based in reality. The economy just went through the worst economic downturn since the Depression; of course earnings were down. The fact that our plan is still over 90% funded despite the economic crisis reinforces its current form. [Treasurer] Lillard’s basis for making the change seems to actually be a basis for keeping it. It weathered the storm. If folks had had their retirement in his proposed plan they would have lost significantly," said UCW President and UTK Facilities Services employee Tom Anderson.


"TCRS is not in crisis,” says Anderson. “We need sound government policies to rebuild after the economic shock we have been going through, not an ideological attack on public employees that funnels our salaries into retirement accounts administered by the same Wall Street bankers who have behaved like gamblers on a binge in Las Vegas.”


“The facts are plain; any legislation that removes new employees from the current pension will over time destroy our very solvent retirement system and constitute a massive pay cut for hardworking employees earning modest salaries,” explains UCW Vice President and MTSU library employee Rick Kurtz. Kurtz recently ran as a candidate for the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System Board of Trustees election. “My grandmother who was an English teacher instilled in me the importance of education, hard work and the responsibility of service to others. Our higher education employees, state workers and teachers deserve to have the careers we give to the people of Tennessee honored. If the person who comes after me also gives a lifetime of dedication to our state, she or he is as deserving of the respect of a secure retirement as I am.”


We can expect more and more attacks on our public sector benefits as states are now required to report these as liabilities for the first time. This includes things like your insurance after you retire but before you qualify for Medicare. Will you stand up for an affordable, secure retirement? Stay in touch:


How did your elected officials vote?
How did your elected officials vote on SB 1005? How did your elected officials vote on HB 948?
  House moved to substitute and conform to SB1005
          Present and not voting..............1
Senators voting aye were: Beavers, Bell, Bowling, Burks, Campfield, Crowe, Dickerson, Finney L, Ford, Gardenhire, Green, Gresham, Haile, Harper, Henry, Hensley, Johnson, Kelsey, Ketron, Kyle, Massey, McNally, Niceley, Norris, Overbey, Southerland, Stevens, Tate, Tracy, Watson, Yager, Mr. Speaker Ramsey -- 32. Representatives voting aye were: Alexander, Brooks H, Brooks K, Butt, Calfee, Camper, Carr D, Carr J, Carter, Casada, Curtiss, Dean, Dennis, Doss, Dunn, Durham, Eldridge, Evans, Faison, Farmer, Floyd, Goins, Halford, Hall, Harrison, Hawk, Haynes, Hill M, Hill T, Holt, Johnson C, Kane, Keisling, Lamberth, Lollar, Lundberg, Lynn, Marsh, Matheny, McCormick, McDaniel, McManus, Miller, Moody, Parkinson, Pitts, Pody, Powers, Ragan, Rich, Roach, Rogers, Sanderson, Sargent, Sexton, Shepard, Shipley, Sparks, Spivey, Swann, Todd, Travis, Van Huss, Watson, Weaver, White D, White M, Williams R, Wirgau, Womick, Madam Speaker Harwell -- 71.
  Representatives voting no were: Cooper, DeBerry J, Fitzhugh, Hardaway, Jernigan, Johnson G, Jones, Mitchell, Powell, Stewart, Tidwell, Towns, Turner J, Turner M, Williams K, Windle -- 16.
  Representatives present and not voting were: Forgety -- 1.


Check out the different media stories on the event at

If you haven't taken action on this issue, take a moment to send a message to key UT decision makers by clicking HERE.  

"We want to inform the wider community about conditions in the department, and to call on the administration to make a commitment to improve them," said Josh Smyser, a Building Services employee and UCW member.  "At a public institution, this kind of bully culture is completely unacceptable, and the record shows that management is making it unbearable."

The department has seen an out flux of employees due to these poor conditions, even as in sourcing, implemented in part to avoid high turnover and lack of a stable, committed workforce, has created the need for more employees.  According to a Freedom of Information Act obtained from UT, 58 employees have been terminated or resigned since January of 2012.

"Our time is for sale, our pride is not," said Troy Grant, a Building Services employee and UCW member.

Some custodians have come forward because they have been assigned to work in unsafe environments.  Others have noted that the atmosphere is "just plain disrespectful," and have been the targets of or witnessed verbal abuse from supervisors.

Alarmingly employees also point to an atmosphere of fear and suspicion in which those who speak up against these conditions are subject to the threat of discipline and retaliation by their supervisors.  "If you speak up, you know they're gonna put you on the list [to be fired], said one custodian, who did not wish to be named precisely for such fears.

Organizers hope that Wednesday's event will garner broader campus and community attention that will demonstrate the urgency and stakes of the problem, and force accountability.  Custodians, their supporters, and the media are encouraged to arrive at the Shiloh Room at 3 pm.  

For more information, contact:
Cameron Brooks at 865-387-4408, [email protected] .