Taking the podium in her freshly pressed, light-blue work uniform, Doris Conley looked out onto the faces of the Memphis City Council.
For 17 years she has worked as a custodian at the Child Research Center at the University of Memphis. Her days start early, at 5:30 a.m., and she will have cleaned and sanitized three sets of bathrooms, four classrooms and the kitchen before 85 children arrive at 8. She spends the rest of the day running between two buildings, cleaning up messes and helping the teachers manage the children. It’s a tough job, but one the 64-year-old loves and takes pride in.
It’s also a job that she and her family rely on. Conley’s husband passed away in 2016, and her income has to stretch far enough to provide for herself and the granddaughter she is helping to raise.
Which is why, after a long day on her feet in September 2017, the lifelong Memphian was moved to tears as she explained her situation to the Council: “The state is trying to sell me and my co-workers out to a private company.”
Two years earlier, Tennessee’s billionaire Republican governor, Bill Haslam, had secretly convened a committee of highly paid government appointees and corporations, with the goal of concocting a state-wide privatization plan.
The committee said it was using “vested outsourcing,” a controversial process in which the corporations that want to bid for a public contract work with government leaders to draft it. The resulting $1.9 billion contract was the largest in Tennessee government history, and privatized the maintenance and management of up to 90 percent of state-run facilities, including state and university buildings. It was awarded to Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), a multinational with a history of bribery accusations.
The contract did not guarantee that state employees at outsourced facilities would keep their positions, and it required them to submit to additional screenings, which led the UCW to believe workers would have to reapply for their jobs. JLL could impose any background checks or drug tests it chose. The company also had the discretion to transfer rehired employees to positions up to 50 miles away. Employees would also immediately see higher health insurance premiums.
Terry Cowles, director of the Office of Customer Focused Government — a department launched by Haslam as part of his plan to run the state like a business — has bragged on video that 15 other state governments “from all over the country” were watching to see whether Tennessee’s experiment in wholesale privatization might be worth importing. To that end, Tennessee officials and JLL organized a roundtable in Nashville in May 2017 to promote the Tennessee “case study” to other states.
With a Republican governor and the GOP in control of the state House and Senate, the outsourcing scheme should have been a walk in the (soon-to-be-privatized) park.
What the privatizers didn’t plan for was the United Campus Workers (UCW), a scrappy higher education union affiliated with the Communication Workers of America (CWA). Public-sector unions in Tennessee are legally barred from engaging in collective bargaining, and the state has no obligation to recognize or negotiate with them. Instead, the union relies on a mixture of legislative advocacy, workplace actions and mass mobilizations.
Few unions exist in a harsher political and legal environment, yet the UCW is punching far above its weight, increasing its membership while securing victories against better-funded foes.
EXPLOITING GOP TENSIONS
Gov. Haslam’s radical outsourcing plan posed an existential threat to the UCW, which estimated that 10,000 state employees would be affected.
The response was all hands on deck as the union publicly launched its #TNisNOTforSale campaign in August 2015.
“The first real task was to go back and talk to everyone on campus about what was happening,” says Ed McDaniel, a locksmith who has worked at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for 10 years and is now president of the union. “We all went out and tried to get more people to join because we knew that the union was going to be leading this fight.” The effort brought hundreds of new members into UCW.
The union sounded the alarm about the privatization plan through rallies, press conferences, editorials and town halls. It fact-checked Haslam’s claims about the supposed benefits of privatization. It amplified explosive media reports about his financial ties to JLL and the ways he might personally benefit from the deal. While running for governor, Haslam had disclosed a “major investment” in JLL, of an unspecified amount. (After his election, his investments were placed in a blind trust, and Haslam claimed he did not know whether or not he would personally profit from the outsourcing contract.)
With ample evidence to show that privatization seldom delivers the full benefits promised by its proponents, the union was well positioned to make its case using empirical facts.
“We had a little of everything,” Doris Conley says. “We did flyers and cards. We were out on the highway, in parking lots, in the mall, on campus getting folks to sign postcards for their legislators.”
UCW also collected over 5,000 signatures on a petition opposing outsourcing.
“We put them on a sheet of paper that was 150 feet long and 3 feet wide,” McDaniel says. “We took it to the legislative plaza and rolled it down the hall, chanting ‘Tennessee is not for sale.’ The legislators were coming out of their offices and committee meetings to see what was happening. Legislators were trying to get by and they were having to jump over the scroll.”
The most crucial strategic decision of the campaign was to hone in on populist Republican suspicion of rich elites by choosing the governor as the target. Many legislators were sympathetic to working-class constituents who could have their jobs privatized by a company in which the billionaire governor had invested.
“It turns out that class is a big issue inside the Republican Party,” says Jeffrey Lichtenstein, UCW secretary and part-time worker at the UT Health Science Center. “Even Republicans saw the governor as misusing his office to strip away jobs and personally enrich himself. It split the party open.”
During a GOP caucus retreat just a few months after the launch of UCW’s campaign, conservative state Sen. Janice Bowling told the governor bluntly, “You’ve said you want to run the state like a private business, but we don’t want a business to run the state.”
“We actually have a lot of direct access and leverage with Republicans [because] we have members in rural and suburban areas throughout Republican districts,” explains Thomas Walker, a former rank-and-file member who now works as the union’s communications coordinator.
UCW members met with lawmakers in their districts and capitol offices to build a bipartisan coalition to stop outsourcing. Twenty-eight Democrats and 47 Republicans, more than half of the state legislature, signed a letter authored by the UCW calling for a halt to the outsourcing.
Republican lawmakers even sponsored legislation — inspired by UCW model language, according to Lichtenstein — that begins to provide greater scrutiny of the outsourcing process. It passed both houses of the state legislature unanimously.
Under mounting pressure, Haslam agreed to give state agencies and colleges a choice to opt in or out of privatization. So the UCW took the fight back to its home turf of college and university towns, getting local governments and businesses to weigh in and tip the scales against outsourcing. In August 2017, the state agency responsible for managing the state’s parks abandoned the plan. Two months later, the entire University of Tennessee system publicly opted out. To date, the only college to opt in is Austin Peay University in Clarksville, which had already outsourced its janitorial services.
In These Times contacted the state to find out whether any other state agencies had agreed to outsourcing. A media inquiry received no response, and the phone number for the governor’s Transparent Tennessee Initiative was disconnected.
The UCW’s victory is now spurring more organizing efforts by other public workers in the South, where many states have put severe limits on public employee unionization. If public sector union membership across the country becomes completely voluntary, allowing workers to receive the benefits of unionization without being a member or paying any union fees — as is expected when the Supreme Court rules on the Janus case — many unions will need to adopt radically different strategies to survive. They can learn a great deal from unions in states like Tennessee and Texas that have been working within these constraints for decades, and have grown their unions and won material improvements in spite of the hostile legal and political terrain.
UNITING JANITORS AND PROFESSORS
The UCW has its roots in the high-profile living wage campaigns of the 1990s. In Knoxville, the Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network (TIRN) worked with Jobs with Justice of East Tennessee to launch an unsuccessful living wage campaign for city workers.
The campaign didn’t raise wages for city workers, but it did catch the eye of activists in the University of Tennessee’s Progressive Student Alliance, who received training through the AFLCIO’s 1999 “union summer” program. The student organizers began to talk with campus workers, especially in the housekeeping department, where many students had summer jobs.
“At the time  we had gone four years without a raise,” says Sandy Hicks, 66, who worked in housekeeping at the university for over 25 years and was the UCW’s first president. “The university had been downsizing to the point that the work was too much for us to handle. We were disgusted and didn’t think there was any way out.”
A faculty member authored a study showing that 7 out of every 10 hourly employees on campus made less than a living wage. Students and campus workers organized massive actions. In the summer of 2000, the university buckled and agreed to a 4.75 percent minimum pay raise — up to 12 percent for the lowest paid employees on campus, who were receiving $6.25 an hour.
“Shortly after that, we decided to become a union,” Hicks says.
The newly formed independent union quickly realized that to expand to other campuses, they would require support.
After discussions with the United Electrical Workers and other unions, they chose CWA, which was willing to both fund a full-time organizer for two years and give the fledgling union complete programmatic control. Equally important was the success of the Texas State Employees Union (TSEU), which had been organized by the CWA 20 years earlier and represents state employees in multiple agencies, universities and hospitals. As in Tennessee, Texas state workers have extremely restricted collective bargaining rights, so the union is in a constant hustle to organize and mobilize.
The CWA supports TSEU and UCW for both ideological and practical reasons. The union recognized that the clout their mostly private sector members have in any particular state correlates with the overall health of the labor movement in that state. A weak labor movement weakens the strongest unions. So to shift the overall balance of power, the union put more resources into organizing the unorganized, especially in the South.
By all accounts, TSEU is a success. Despite being barred by state law, like UCW, from collective bargaining, the union has used public pressure to win across-the-board raises for state employees and protections against arbitrary or unfair discipline or termination for school employees. It has also kept Medicaid eligibility offices open and fended off state attempts at privatization.
The TSEU, which has 11,000 members and is financially self-sustaining, advised UCW on how it could grow by changing its membership model. At first, only hourly wage campus workers could be members of UCW.
“I was afraid if we opened up the union’s membership, then all these left-leaning faculty like me would be drawn to it and wouldn’t be able to keep their mouths shut, and it wouldn’t be home to all the hourly wage people on campus who it was created to support,” says Fran Ansley, a former professor at the University of Tennessee law school and a founding member of the UCW. “I have been convinced since then that this was the right move.”
On TSEU’s advice, the UCW opened up its membership and organized chapters on 19 state college campuses across the state: from Chattanooga, Nashville and Memphis to rural areas like Martin. The union now has 1,873 members, or 7 percent of all eligible campus workers.
“It blows the minds of state legislators to meet a union delegation with a guy who milks cows in the dairy barn, a professor emeritus in philosophy, custodians and students,” says Ansley.
If it hadn’t been for the expansion from a homegrown independent union of hourly workers to a statewide CWA affiliate organizing all state hourly and salaried employees, the #TNisNOTforSale campaign would never have been possible.
ORGANIZE THE SOUTH!
“Every time I talk to someone about the union, I mention the success that UCW Tennessee has had, especially the Tennessee Is Not for Sale campaign,” says Eric Rose, who has worked at the University of Georgia library for a decade. “They had all the odds against them, they were up against a Republican-dominated legislature and these big-monied interests with incredible power — and they won.”
Rose is part of a cohort of union activists who have worked with the CWA to organize their own UCW local in Georgia. Like Tennessee and Texas, Georgia restricts state employees from collective bargaining, yet the small union has quickly grown to 94 members in four months. UCW GA has been holding regular meetings and is starting to ramp up its own campaigns, focusing on broad-based issues like expensive parking fees for campus employees.
“We have a dream to organize the entire University of Georgia system, just like UCW Tennessee has,” says Joe Fu, a tenured math professor. “And we hope the UCW model expands beyond Georgia.”
That hope is well placed. According to the CWA, organizing committees are being formed at several other Southeastern Conference schools in the South.
At a time when labor is shrinking, the CWA’s support for Southern organizing has been critical.
The South is a proving ground for corporate America. Low-wage non-union workers in the South are pitted against unionized workers in other parts of the country, as when Boeing offered an ultimatum to unionized workers in Seattle: Either accept contract concessions or have your jobs shipped to South Carolina. States like Tennessee have also been a staging ground for radical corporate experiments to extract profits from public services, including prisons, K‑12 education and everything in between. If Haslam’s mass privatization plan had succeeded, it likely would have spread to other states.
Organizing in such conditions has taught veteran activists like Doris Conley that value of tenacity. She’s in it for the long haul.
“The people down here are hard working and we don’t quit,” Conley says. “You push us back two steps and we will fight back and take four. We won’t go away. We won’t give up.”
CLARIFICATION: This story originally said that the state contract with JLL would require state employees at outsourced facilities to reapply for their jobs. The contract did not explicitly state this; it was the union’s interpretation of a clause about additional screenings. The text has been updated to reflect.