Campus Workers Unmask Scheme To Privatize All Tennessee Property

United Campus Workers delayed a plan to privatize the management and maintenance of literally every piece of Tennessee state property—costing the jobs of 1 in 5 state workers. Union members unfurled a petition dozens of feet long in the halls of the state Capitol. Photo: Thomas Walker

Every state has a procurement office. Have you checked what yours is up to?

In Tennessee it was through this office, charged with overseeing the state’s purchases and contracts, that Governor Bill Haslam concocted the biggest privatization scheme you’ve never heard of.

And he would have gotten away with it, too—if it weren’t for a tough campus-workers union that discovered his plans and launched a raucous fight.

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.

The plan they cooked up was unprecedented. 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.

Billions in revenue would be funneled to a single private company. It’s rumored that one of the top contenders is Jones Lang LaSalle, already a state contractor and a company where Haslam has a record of personal investment.

Equally shocking, instead of battling it out in the legislature, Haslam’s plan would rely on executive authority. An approach called “vested outsourcing” meant that the most favored corporations would help write the request for proposals.

BAT SIGNAL

An executive-branch matter is easier to keep quiet. Last summer, less than one year from the date when a private contractor would start work, the plan was still under wraps.

That’s when a leader of Tennessee’s public higher-education union, United Campus Workers (Communications Workers Local 3865) received a tip.

Over the past 17 years, UCW has built a non-majority, wall-to-wall union. Anyone working for a public university can join—and over 1,600 have. Members include custodians, college deans, and everything in between.

Since public employees in this state are denied our 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.

STATEWIDE REBELLION

As soon as UCW heard about the privatization scheme in August 2015, it 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.

Of all the workers on a campus, we’ve found facilities workers to be some of the toughest to organize. They cover a variety of shops—carpentry, air conditioning, electrical, painting, custodial, housekeeping, and clerical and administrative support staff. They tend to be a tight-knit group, and sometimes insular.

But this crisis inspired record numbers of facilities workers to mobilize, and many to join the union.

AMBUSHING THE GOVERNOR

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Excitement from this rally fueled more actions across the state, as 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.

Each time, our members gleefully rained on his parade, ruined his photo-ops, and forced him to flee to his armored car.

Our earlier coalition work for “Put the People First” paid off. Community groups in several areas hosted their own town-hall meetings and passed resolutions against the plan. We built the broadest possible front, even allying with several key Republication legislators, atypical friends in Tennessee’s hostile-to-labor political environment.

DECISIVE MOMENT

These months of action generated a steady drumbeat of embarrassing media coverage for the governor. It all crescendoed to March 8, when 100 union members converged on the Capitol steps with students and allies from environmental, health care, and workers’ rights groups.

We rallied, we lobbied—and then we occupied a hallway, just 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.

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.”

LIPSTICK ON A PIG

Now that it’s too late to ram through outsourcing in secret, Haslam is trying to persuade the public that outsourcing isn’t so bad.

The administration’s message in the press is that the private contractor will rehire “qualified and productive employees” of the state. Supposedly their new benefits packages will look the same, or even slightly better.

The governor is insinuating that the savings will come from cutting those who are unqualified and unproductive—a familiar line of attack against public employees.

But so far, workers and the public aren’t buying it, in part because Haslam’s credibility has already been so damaged by the campaign. Our message, “Tennessee Is Not for Sale,” is clear and direct. People get it.

The governor’s other tactic is to drag out the process, hoping the public will lapse into fatigue and forgetfulness. 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.

STICKING TO OUR GUNS

Countering the governor’s new strategies will take resilience. As the job loss from outsourcing looms over workers’ heads, hopelessness is brewing.

Our union is working to recruit and train more workplace leaders who can inoculate their co-workers against feelings of powerlessness and revamp the campaign for another year.

The union also needs to continue to cultivate a powerful network to pressure the governor, mobilizing many more Tennesseans and sympathetic onlookers across the country. We encourage supporters to organize actions at Pilot Flying J gas stations across the country to shine a light on the Haslam family’s corrupt business practices and the fallacies of “running a state like a business.”

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

After all, the consequences could reach beyond Tennessee’s borders. If this plan goes through, it would set an awful precedent for other states—and even for federal policy.

Longtime member 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.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #451, October 2016. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.