Tennessee is experiencing something unique in its history, and that is facing the privatization of nearly every state-ran facility in measures to reduce maintenance costs. Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is the group driving the operation.
A group that has been vocal in its fight against Haslam’s plan is United Campus Workers.
Cassie Watters has been an East Tennessee organizer with UCW for four years.
“United Campus Workers is Tennessee’s public education union. It is made up of educators, faculty members, and many other people who work in the Tennessee educational system,” Watters said. “We have over 1,600 members across 16 campuses.”
She said the group started in Knoxville in 2000.
“One of the first things UCW fought for was to raise the minimum wage of starting pay to an acceptable ‘living wage,’” said Watters, who thinks minimum wage should be $15 an hour. “We’ve made some considerable gains in that aspect.”
The current minimum wage for a starting employee at University of Tennessee is now $9.50 an hour, according to Watters. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s website, Tennessee does not have a state minimum wage and uses the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
Watters described privatization in this way: “It can happen many different ways. A company takes public jobs and gives it to someone else. Sometimes the employees will get to keep their jobs when the new company takes over, which is a best-case scenario.”
She said that in this case, the move to keep some employees based on certain criteria was a “move made to appeal to people in the moment.”
Sometimes the entire staff of a facility could be laid off and new employees come in, working for a smaller wage and working for little to no benefits, Watters also commented.
“It’s morally wrong,” Watters said.
This plan was discovered in mid-August when a “request for information” was sent from the Department of General Services to various vendors who would be interested in taking control of state facilities. According to negotiations.com, the purpose of an RFI is “to gather information to help decide what step to take next before embarking on negotiations.”
Facilities that were mentioned in the document were hospitals, colleges and universities, prisons, state parks and military.
The UCW sees it as a plan for state governments to “trim costs through cutting jobs, salaries and benefits.”
Mostly from Democrats and the UCW, Haslam and his administration have received a lot of criticism for these efforts to save taxpayers’ dollars.
At this time, Haslam has said that no final decision has been made to outsource any building’s facility management.
Even though Haslam’s plan is in the beginning stages, this isn’t the first time Tennessee Tech has faced privatization.
In 2012, Tech and its Facilities department outsourced its custodial services to SSC Service Solutions, a company headquartered in Knoxville. This effort was made to save the university money while it was experiencing a budget crisis because of the impact of the Great Recession, according to a case study conducted by former University of Memphis economics professor David Ciscel.
In Ciscel’s study, he said the 2012-14 contract with SSC cost ($1,731,780) had about a $100,000 difference between Tech paying its custodians ($1,824,895). The figure for Tech came from 2010-11.
UCW is active on Tech’s campus. The group hosted a cookout Oct. 8 on the new Centennial Plaza to promote awareness of the governor’s plans.
For 10 years, Michael Kuley has been a research assistant at Tech’s Center for the Management, Utilization and Protection of Water Resources, and he is a member of UCW. He said he became a member after the custodians were outsourced.
“Does Governor Haslam have a plan? We, in reading the news stories, we would say yes,” Kuley said. “He’s been on record saying, ‘I don’t have a plan. We’re just looking into it.’ And it’s ridiculous.”
Kuley commented that a major problem with halting Haslam’s plans is that it’s an “Executive branch decision.”
“The legislators aren’t even going to be able to vote on it. He can do what he wants when he wants at any time,” said Kuley. “And for anyone to think there’s not a plan and they’re just looking into it, I would say, ‘We heard this same thing during the custodial outsourcing.’
“If (Tennessee Tech) is privatized, you’re talking about workers hired in at minimum wage. Do they have to work 40 hours a week? No. They could be part-time. Do they get benefits? We don’t know.”
Kuley mentioned that if Haslam’s plan were implemented, the department that would be affected first would be Facilities.
Jack Butler, associate vice president of facilities, has worked at Tech since July 2011 and does not agree with the governor’s plans.
“I think the diversity of operations in any university is a little more complex than just a state office building that operate Monday through Friday, nine to five with permanent staff, for the most part,” Butler said.
He said the population of a university is ever changing and his facilities crew needs to tend to the needs of that population: water, sewage, air conditioning.
“I think the complexity of our operation is not going to be a good thing for a contractor to try and put a number to,” he added.
Butler also commented that President Oldham would be the final deciding factor in the privatization of facilities management at Tennessee Tech.
No comment from the president has been given at this time.
So the question was asked to Butler what would happen to him if this occurred.
“I would assume, if that’s what would happen, there would be some kind of transition period,” Butler said. “We, being Facilities, wouldn’t walk out one day and a contractor would walk in the next. I don’t know where the contractor would get his expert knowledge of deferred maintenance, of where electrical panels are, of what pumps provide what source to the university. I’ve been here four years and I don’t know them all.”
So what could the average person do?
“Everyone who is part of a TBR campus needs to be aware,” Watters said. “Get on the radio. Write editorials. We need everyone to be more informed and bring this problem to our legislators. To find your local legislator, go to capitol.tn.gov and search under the ‘legislators’ tab. You can even type your address and learn exactly who your representatives are.”