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Origin Story

Any given year, summer in Knoxville, TN is hot and humid. Resting by a wide, scenic part of the Tennessee River and not far from the much-visited Smoky Mountains, the University of Tennessee, like other universities across the country, supplements its income through hosting summer conferences. These conferences pack people into the dorms, and are often booked back to back and on top of each other. While attendees learn their way around the hilly campus, go to workshops and eat in the cafeterias, the housing and custodial workers are greatly impacted by this influx of people. Pushed to quickly turn over the facilities from one group to another, it often meant a 60+ hour work-week in hot weather and buildings lacking adequate air-conditioning.  

In the winter, these same employees were required to report to work during inclement weather. It was a choice between putting themselves in jeopardy on hazardous roads or lose pay. And in any weather, housing workers were at risk of Hepatitis B or other illnesses by exposure to unsafe body fluids, including needles in the trash. They were asked to work without adequate protective gear, and if they had it, they had to buy their own.

These are a few examples of the extreme conditions faced by Sandy Hicks and Ernestine Robinson, two of the earliest housing department employees at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) to sign on to, and get involved in the leadership of, what became United Campus Workers.

Cameron Brooks was one of the students at UTK getting politicized by paying attention to issues of inequity going on around him, including homelessness. With other students, he formed the Alliance for Hope, a student advocacy group for the houseless. The Alliance soon expanded its scope to include broader issues of poverty and a living wage, and became the Progressive Students Alliance. PSA would become a core partner to UCW-TN, and was a political home to students dedicated to a strategy of worker organizing beyond their years of college attendance. 

At the time, watching the City Council of Knoxville vote down a living wage ordinance in 1999, Cameron and others asked ‘if the city could do one, why not organize a living wage campaign for University of Tennessee workers?’ A coalition forming to explore just that was in its earliest stages. Some students and professors were already working on a wage study, led by David Linge of the Religious Studies Department and Kristi Disney, a graduate student at the time. 

The issue of a living wage at UTK was brought to the public campus eye in early March 2000 with a two-day teach-in on Labor and Human Rights. It was spearheaded mostly by the students, with collaborative partners including Jobs with Justice, local unions, and community groups. As Cameron and David McElwain, with United Garment Workers, did outreach for the teach-in, they found the workers most interested were members of the UTK Department of Housing.

One day doing outreach around Melrose Dorm, Cameron noticed a woman cleaning the common area and tried the door. It was locked so he knocked. The woman put down her cleaning supplies, came to the door and opened it. It was Sandy Hicks. He talked about the wage study and an upcoming teach-in on labor and human rights, and she talked about the hard, backbreaking work the custodial department did, with little respect, low pay and recent lay-offs. “He caught me on the right day, that’s for sure,” Sandy would later say. It was a friendship forged in the trenches of worker organizing that continues to this day.

Over 500 people attended that teach-in called Labor Rights as Human Rights at Home and Abroad including professors, students and a large contingent from the Housing Department. Through their relationships, vision, and good planning, conference organizers were able to secure high level speakers including, AFL-CIO Secretary General Rich Trumka (who later became AFL-CIO President); labor organizer, historian and writer Bill Fletcher; and Elaine Bernard, Harvard labor educator. These nationally respected speakers stood side by side with professors, students and custodial and maintenance workers, all sharing their stories of what it meant to work at the University of Tennessee. 

The Teach-In included a rally and a march to the President’s office, where a diverse group of representatives met with a designee of UTK’s President, Phil Scheuer, dubbed as the ‘J’ Edgar Hoover of Campus’ because of his treatment of protestors. Not deterred, the group had their say, and left having secured a meeting with the actual president, not a designee. 

The Teach-In also included the release of the wage study Linge and Disney had been coordinating. It showed wage trajectories and disparities at UTK from 1970, with folks at the bottom going down, down, down, and faculty also going down, but not at the same rate. It revealed that 68% of UT employees made less than the proposed living wage of $9.30 an hour.

Out of that Teach-In, Campus Workers for A Living Wage (CWLW) was formed. 

There were initial internal debates at all levels from the Housing Department to faculty on how to relate to CWLW, whether to become an independent union or be part of a broader campus effort, and in the fall, Campus Workers for a Living Wage became United Campus Workers. Sandy Hicks and Ernestine Robinson became its first co-presidents. 

Three years later, out of the assessment that affiliating with a national union would strengthen their organizing efforts, and after several exploratory conversations with a couple of different unions, Communication Workers of America said yes. It was fall, 2003.

United Campus Workers-TN, birthed out of the Knoxville campus, would go on to spread across the state with chapters in Memphis, Chattanooga, east TN and middle TN, as well as across the country, inspiring United Campus Worker unions in eight other southeastern states, and Arizona and Colorado.

This report details some of the stories of the people involved in UCW-TN, why they got involved and what it meant to them, the organizing campaigns of UCW, strategies and the impact, as well as questions and concerns, and reflections for the vision and future work.

Happy 20th Anniversary United Campus Workers-TN! And for those involved in this worker organizing effort before the official affiliation with Communication Workers of America, Happy 23rd Anniversary!




Why This Report and Why Now

On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, UCW leaders sought a process that would commemorate, celebrate, evaluate and reflect 

Organizing for Our Future

on the past, present and future of UCW. This report is a reflection of the past 20 years of UCW-TN and a vision for the future. It uplifts UCW-TN’s living legacy while paving a pathway for what’s possible as the work continues. It includes personal reflections, case studies, lessons learned, and major wins. It highlights the highest of highs of UCW-TN and opportunities for growth as the work continues.

Over the past several years, we’ve witnessed workers rights being decimated, the rise of fascism, LQBTQIA+ hate, reproductive rights decimated, increased violence against people of color, and attacks on immigrants. Tennessee needs organized labor in solidarity with multiple movements now more than ever. The moment is ripe and the time is now. UCW-TN is committed to organizing workers for the long haul, and this report and process of inquiry and discovery shines light on the path thus far and possibilities for what’s ahead.  


To shepherd this process, UCW-TN reached out to Kierra Sims-Drake and Pam McMichael, two former staff at the Highlander Research and Education Center who are grounded in methodologies of popular education and participatory action research, with decades of organizing and political education experience. Together, they formed an inter-generational, cross-race consultant team. 

Kierra and Pam’s work was informed by a Steering Committee that recommended interviewees, provided context and landscape of UCW-TN’s work, and developed interview questions. The Steering Committee included Amanda Lee Savage, Dana Smith, Jon Shefner, and Michael Principe. In May to July 2023, interviews were held with 36 UCW members and staff (past and present) across race, class, job categories (facilities, lecturers, custodians, faculty, tenured professors, and more), and across the state. The list of interviewees included rank and file members and people who formerly and currently serve in leadership positions of various ages and gender identities. Based on these interviews and conversations, the final product of this process is the United Campus Workers 20th Anniversary Report.

The goals of this report are to document UCW-TN’s history, share victories, highlight statewide impact and partnerships, and highlight possibilities for what’s next. Chapters and fellow labor unions can use this report as a guide for building their own campaigns and as an invitation to start the labor union of your dreams. You have what you need to make it happen. We need more labor unions and the South and worker organizing needs you. 




UCW Spreads Throughout Tennessee

UCW-TN was founded in 2000 to address concerns about working conditions and pay of higher education workers at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. As campaigns grew and organizing began to reach more people, UCW began to expand across the state. Members and UCW staff realized that statewide growth was needed to strengthen and expand its impact. Key steps in UCW’s expansion across Tennessee include the following moments: 

  • October 2000: United Campus Workers becomes an independent union at University of Tennessee-Knoxville
  • 2004: Faculty from various departments at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga form a UCW Chapter
  • 2008: UCW hires a statewide organizer Karly Safar to build and lead statewide growth and expansion
  • 2008: University of Tennessee-Martin faculty and staff begin organizing with UCW and becomes a chapter 
  • 2008: Faculty and staff at Middle Tennessee State University contact UCW about starting an organizing campaign. MTSU becomes the first chapter outside of the University of TN system
  • 2010: UCW’s Lead Organizer Tom Smith relocates from Knoxville to Memphis, a crucial step in building a Memphis chapter 
  • 2008: UCW started organizing in Memphis, middle TN, Cookeville, and Nashville 
  • 2009: Employees at the University of Memphis and UT Health Science Center in Memphis establish a chapter
  • 2015: ETSU announces major budget cuts and faculty and staff decide to unionize. 
  • 2015: UCW Middle Tennessee Organizer Cameron Brooks and Jon Shefner present at ETSU Faculty Senate during discussions of representation by UCW and another statewide union. ETSU votes to become a chapter 
Get Involved. The Union needs you to make a difference.

Many notable victories, from winning the effort to outsource facilities workers' jobs to increasing staff pay in various universities, required a heavy presence outside of Knoxville, including taking buses of people to the State Capitol in Nashville every March. Campaign organizing required lobbying days, local organizing and recruitment, and gaining new allies from across the state. Members and students held rallies that garnered media attention from students and major news outlets and informational pickets to get notoriety and build solidarity. This combination of opening new chapters and intentional recruitment coupled with new organizing tactics and strategies led to an increased presence and growth of UCW across Tennessee.

Organizing, activism, and social justice were all combined in the early days. Born out of the living wage campaign with Jobs with Justice. Anything we did, there was an organizing effort. 

Tom Anderson, UCW Member, former president, Facilities Services, UTK                                   

UCW Becomes a North Star

UCW started in Knoxville and spread over 400 miles to reach Memphis by 2009. The union now boasts more than 2,200 members on 20 campuses across Tennessee. In 2018, UCW was exported across state lines, opening chapters in 11 other states. UCW-TN has become a model for labor organizing throughout the South.

With no collective bargaining agreement and the very active attempts to dismantle labor unions, UCW-TN has made the impossible feel more possible and, thus, has become a model for labor organizing throughout the Southeast. UCW-TN has learned tactics and strategies from other 

labor unions (i.e.: Texas State Employees Union) while also setting the precedent for other state victories, included but not limited to:

  • Fight for $15 campaigns in Kentucky and Georgia universities
  • A base pay raise in South Carolina universities
  • Fight for 15 became Raise Up and now called Union for Southern Service Workers

UCW has shown people a successful model for organizing in a place where people are constantly doubting that we can succeed. In the South especially, people are so quick to write off organizing in the South. In a lot of organizing spaces nationally, people are hesitant to put resources in the South and assume it’s a lost cause or that we can’t get anything done. And in labor [organizing] you see ‘well we don’t have a contract what are we supposed to do without that’. UCW has shown that you can and that we do.

Justin Davis, former West TN Organizer

One of the clearest things to me is just how within the past four or five years, we have grown to have UCW’s all across the south, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Virgina, South Carolina, Florida; out west Colorado, Arizona. That is really amazing to see, yes people do want a union and organize even in these places that people think are too conservative or where they think it is illegal to have a union.

Dana Smith, former UCW Lead Organizer

Its existence is a living legacy. There aren't many unions in the South. There aren't many unions of public employees in the south. We work outside the law. No one gave us permission to be and have a union - we decided to organize and build one.

Karly Safar, CWA Senior Campaign Lead

Our model is the model of the future of labor - we can't rely on collective bargaining, legal maneuvers and rights - to fight for worker justice, worker rights, and worker power. At the basic level union organizing is moving people out of isolation and into collective action in order to carry out a strategy and advance the fight for unions.

Jayanni Webster, former West TN Organizer 


Living Legacy

UCW-TN is a labor organization kept alive and grown stronger despite all the odds and that is through the work and countless hours of members coming into this space and fighting for what is right. Its legacy extends across party lines and reaches folks across race, class, and job categories. Through campaigns and statewide organizing, members build power and shift the narrative about what’s possible in the fight for workers’ rights across the country. 

Tennessee is so large and diverse, to find cross purposes and to unite across such distances and differences is a major success. That alone is an achievement. 

Amanda Lee Savage, Instructor, University of Memphis

It’s crazy that we have 2,000 members state wide and it really started here with a handful of humans.

 Mia Romano, Chapter President, UTK

To see the persistence of the union spirit….the willingness to build and sustain something in the face of hostile and/or indifferent climate, which is the university here and Tennessee in general on unions.

Josh Smyser, Josh Smyser, Chemistry Dept, UTK

UCW members rally at Lobby Day 2022

UCW-TN’s success is attributed to: 1) Strong organizing that includes clear targets and a strategy of multi-pronged approaches and tactics; 2) Focus on being wall-to-wall; and 3) Getting support from a national union that gave them the capacity and resources to hire staff. 

Organizing requires informed recruitment, leadership development and strategies and tactics that address root causes, and good organizers. Through organizing, UCW-TN builds power and develops campaigns that reach the masses. 

We’re building a model of organizing to fight for people that no one would ever fight for. Other people say it's too hard to do and some labor unions don't do what we do. Despite all of these legal structural and capacity hurdles, people continue to fight to be recognized and for their voices to be heard.

Karly Safar, CWA Senior Campaign Lead, UCW Regional Organizer

UCW had the most skilled and capable and mission driven organizers I have ever seen in my entire experience in politics and government. They were skilled in making sure working families had a voice and got what they deserved. At the same time, they were really well trained. You have got to be able to program an agenda and do it with a light touch as it has to be driven by members and the folks who have the most directly at stake. UCW organizers always understood that.

Mayor Lee Harris, Shelby County Mayor, and former faculty at University of Memphis

Our organizers are really good at looking at and tapping leaders from across campus. It is easy to go to the obvious people, but they do more.

Diana Moyer, former UCW President

The way UCW has been able to win campaigns has given me a lot of lessons on rigorous organizing. Their organizers put in a lot of rigor for intentional recruitment benchmarks and doing blitzes for membership drives, and how to upgrade members to sustainers and vice versa.

Adam Hughes, SOCM staff, UCW Sustaining Member

We led a campaign to defeat a policy that required essential workers to report to work regardless of weather conditions or lose pay. This involved people primarily in building services, an extremely low income group of people who came from different parts of Knoxville, rural, white, Black, most of whom don’t do a lot of activism. It’s not considered respectable. We as a union were the instrument by which these people could protest something was was putting their lives at risk.

Josh Smyser, Chemistry Dept, UTK


With UCW-TN’s commitment to being “wall to wall”, workers across job categories are involved in choosing campaign issues, targets, and tactics. All members stand in solidarity with one another with a common goal - a workplace that provides a living wage and centers dignity for all.  

Being a wall to wall union is something members hold most dearly is solidarity with each other. When it’s a big fight like stopping outsourcing and everyone comes together, or when people in their own jobs have an issue and members from other job categories show up, you really see that solidarity. It’s a constant balance, organizing on issues with people directly impacted, and having a model across job classifications.

Allison Becha, UCW East TN Organizer

It was different working with people in the office and different departments but seeing everybody come together to help each other was really good.

Thelma Jean Rimmer, former Custodial Worker, Memphis 

The university wants different groups to see their issues as oppositional, and a strength of a wall to wall union is that it can fight that.

Eli S, former organizer

The faculty was great behind us 100% [at the beginning]. To me the faculty is the professors and whoever else. That is one of the things that gave me the strength to keep going, that and the students behind us. 

Sandy Hicks, Co-Founder and former Co-President

It gives all of the state public higher education workers a voice, to stand up to authoritarian local and state governments and go no, we are not going to take it.

Scott Martindale, Long-Time Member, Middle TN State University

Before I joined the union, a lot of things were going on around the university, and everytime I tried to find someone to speak for me, everyone in upper management worked together against it. When I became part of the union, upper management still worked together, but once I was union, the nitpicking on me stopped.

Tony Patton, former staff, UTK Health Science Center

When you  meet queer people who can give you a theory to explain all of this and then introduce you to people who are like you, who look and sound like your family, live like your family, who say we can’t wait for the beyond, we deserve to have this now…. I couldn’t say no. I was fully in. It changed the whole course of my life.

Thomas Walker, former UCW organizer, CWA staff, Washington DC

In the (legislators) office with our delegation, it helped to have our wall to wall delegation. We had a fully tenured professor in geography, two secretaries, facilities services workers, a man from the dairy farm workers. You could see the confusion on the legislators’ faces, thinking how do I talk to these folks? ‘Am I a country boy or a business man?’ They didn’t know what to do with us.

Fran Ansley, Law Professor, UTK, retired; Jobs with Justice


Being wall to wall is the reason UCW-TN has remained worker centered and informed and won campaigns. Among other, those campaigns include:

  • Graduate student stipend increase and fees eliminated (2021) at UTK
  • Lecturer pay increase at UTK and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga  
  • Custodial campaigns
  • Graduate Student Health Insurance at UTK and the University of Memphis


Tennessee Is Not For Sale Campaign:

UCW-TN used a wall to wall approach to plan, implement, and win the Tennessee Is Not For Sale campaign from 2014 to 2016. The campaign was led by facilities workers with support and planning by all job categories.

2016 came and the outsourcing came and that was this existential shift in the union. Though it threatened a certain set of workers, the impact was clear it would be university wide and that was our pitch and how we got so many people involved.

Jon Shefner, UTK Professor, former Executive Committee

Tennessee Is Not For Sale campaign was not siloed. We made it university wide. We took this issue of facilities management outsourcing with maintenance staff and custodians and really engaged faculty around how this would affect their work and how their jobs were affected too. It was a very powerful narrative. It was different in the media and public to have and see this visual of blue collar and white collar workers together.

Eli S., former UCW East TN Organizer

The Tennessee Is Not For Sale Campaign was a campaign to protect facilities and building services jobs in higher education from being outsourced to private corporations. UCW-TN and its allies forced the state to delay its plan by years, provide for an “opt-out” choice for 

UCWTN Members at a TN is Not for Sale Rally

campuses, and guarantee employment and benefits to anyone who may be outsourced. UCW-TN organized across departments and job

 categories and collected over 6,000 signatures to win this campaign. 

Strategies and tactics included:

  • Engaging wall to wall union, students, community groups, faith leaders, businesses, and other labor unions in demonstrations, rallies, and petitions to put pressure on decision makers 
  • Conducting strong media campaign
  • Campuses across the state led demonstrations, rallies, and marches and off-campus activities included petitions and letter writing and meetings with administrative leaders
  • Organizing thousands of people to lobby at the capital 
  • Securing non-partisan support to stop outsourcing  
  • Meetings with administrative leaders

Please see the case study on the Tennessee Is Not for Sale Campaign for more on tactics, strategies, and wins.

Fight for a Living Wage:

Living Wage YES!

UCW-TN’s fight for a living wage is part of its origin and legacy. Living wage campaigns have formed and were implemented in various forms 

across the state. Through its fight for a living wage, UCW-TN has prioritized different job categories and pressured several targets to improve the livelihoods of its members. Past victories include: 

  • Ended forced overtime for Housing and Facilities workers
  • Lobbied for raises across job categories  
  • Fight for $15 per hour across the state 
  • Secured $1 per hour increase, totaling up to $600 total minimum raise that year (2015)
  • Raised Lecturers’ base salary
  • Graduate student stipend raises 
  • Elimination of Graduate student fees
  • Non-tenured track faculty members won $10,000 in raises and were awarded two-year contract letters

Please see the case study on Living Wage Campaigns for more on tactics, strategies, and wins.

Worker Protections in Critical Times: 

UCW-TN work also includes moments of rapid response to protect workers across campuses. Staff, members, and allies organized to guarantee health and safety measures in critical times. Major wins in moments of rapid response include:

  • Guaranteed sick time and pay 
  • Coverage of Hepatitis-B vaccinations for housekeepers
  • Indoor mask mandate in key areas during COVID-19 pandemic
  • Coverage of COVID-19 vaccination
  • COVID-19 leave for custodians 
  • Hazard pay for Facilities workers
  • Demand for personal protective equipment (PPE)

Please see the case study on Worker Protections in Critical Times for more on tactics, strategies, and wins.

Role of Students 

Though UCW-TN is a wall to wall union made of workers across job categories, undergraduate students have played a critical role in the outreach, campaign implementation and victories, and growth of the union. Undergraduate students have played a critical role in direct actions, recruiting folks to rallies and teach-ins, uplifting and spreading the word about campaigns, and collecting signatures for petitions. Students have also strategically become workers on campus in order to strengthen campaigns and organize their colleagues into the union. In many cases, UCW-TN has had student organizations as partners and allies to move the work forward. 

At the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and University of Memphis, particularly important is the Progressive Student Alliance (PSA). Most students who then worked at UCW and CWA came from the PSA. And at MTSU, Middle Tennessee Solidarity and Young Democratic Socialists of America have been critical in organizing on campus and building campaigns. 

There is strength in numbers and the fact that students were involved made such a big difference. The university listened to the students.

Sandy Hicks, former UTK Housing Department and inaugural Co-President.

Students barged into offices and did things union members couldn't do.

Tom Anderson, UCW Member, former president, Facilities Services, UTK   

Some of what we have done has had some kind of radicalizing impact on students, just as witnesses.

Jon Shefner, UTK Professor, former UCW Executive Committee




YearTotal Members (End of Year)Net Membership GrowthNew ChaptersNew States
20204846181714KY, VA, SC, CO, AZ
201930294754LA, AL

Fight For a Living Wage

UCW-TN’s campaigns are ongoing. They shape and shift depending on the needs and hopes identified by members. The work today is informed by campaign wins and learnings of the past and hopes and dreams for the future. As UCW-TN work grows, so does its membership, staff, and reach. Existing members are being developed into leaders. More folks are being recruited as members, more staff are being hired, and more allies are getting activated to win campaigns, inform legislation, and make a greater impact in Tennessee. 

The UCW-TN fight for a living wage is ever-evolving. Today, fighting for a living wage takes many forms across the state. UCW-TN staff and members are organizing members across departments and campuses to fight for the following:

  • Raises and higher base pay
  • Fair treatment in the workplace
  • Guarantee of stable employment
  • Have minimum wage increases applied to part time workers 
  • Increase in Lecturer wages
  • Raise minimum wage from $15 per hour to $20 per hour; and have $25 per hour by 2025

UTC is the second-longest school in the UT system, and we lag 30-40% behind in some job categories. There is massive disparity when the cost of living is the same. As we wrap up this $15 an hour win, we need raises across the board to bring salaries more in line with other branches of the UT system.

Edward Brudney, Assistant Professor, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

UCW-CWA Local 3865 Victory: UTK Graduate Workers Win Stipend Increases

Graduate students are fighting to be recognized and compensated as workers in higher education across the nation. In Tennessee, there are demands to have their contributions to the university system properly recognized. UCW-TN and its members are leading campaigns to guarantee a living wage and health insurance for graduate students. Demands include: 

  • Graduate students recognized as employees of the university system
  • Increase in stipends 
  • Comprehensive health care coverage 
  • Guaranteed family and medical leave 

UCW-TN recognizes its members as full humans with whole lives. With the heightened political climate in Tennessee, UCW-TN chapters are also leading training and workshops on implicit bias, anti-racism, and discrimination in the workplace. Chapters understand that the current, divisive concepts legislation impacts its members' daily lives and are in solidarity with the fight for a more inclusive, equitable reality in Tennessee.

It has to be the power in workers to create the kind of workplace that they want to live in - where they are respected, compensated, and secure.

Bill Taylor, Member, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga 

A big focus of ours is connecting UCW with other progressive struggles in the state and mobilizing our base to help with those things … reproductive rights, gun control, the struggle against policing, a big part of the work everyone has been doing.

Justin Davis, former West TN Organizer

Public Chapter 818 - “Divisive Concept” Legislation

In October 2022, Tennessee state legislature drafted a Divisive Concepts bill, now known as Public Chapter 818, that forbade faculty in state-funded schools from teaching about “divisive concepts” such as race, gender, religion, nationality, and class. Most university students did not know this bill was passed. Therefore, as a form of direct action and to inform students and faculty about the Divisive Concept bill, UCW-TN faculty members across campuses led speak-ins and teach-ins opposing the law. Members also pressured upper administration to give clarifying, public statements regarding the law.

At University of Tennessee at Knoxville, faculty members led a teach-In that included a panel about Public Chapter 818 with Q&A and was attended by faculty and students. As part of the speak-In, approximately 35 faculty members also organized to give a statement opposing the law  before the start of each class. The following is an excerpt from the statement: 

To deny students the chance to engage with so-called divisive concepts is to deny you your education, to deprive you of the knowledge you 

need to be full-fledged citizens, and to take away the skills you need to participate in democratic society. College education MUST teach the concepts that this law labels divisive. And it must teach students how to engage with challenging and divisive issues in general. Centuries ago, it was divisive to teach the notion that the Earth rotates around the Sun, and less than a century ago in this state it was divisive to each about evolutionary biology. The fact that people may be divided in their views of the concepts named in the law does not mean that you should be prevented from learning about them. 

And yet according to the same constraints of Public Chapter 818 (and certainly according to many of the bill’s initial drafters). Its aim is to prevent me from teaching, and to prevent you from learning, at least some of what I am about to teach and discuss with you today. Therefore it is possible that in teaching today’s class, I am breaking the law. 




Today, UCW-TN wants to make clear that difficult topics around race, class, sex and gender discrimination are part of college education and should remain part of the curriculum. Topics such as these are pivotal to accurate teaching and learning. UCW-TN remains committed to building a critical mass of faculty members and students to speak out and push back against Public Chapter 818 and similar legislation. 

We will continue to resist some of the legislative efforts to undermine higher education. Bills about divisive concepts, tenure, bills that encourage unsafe practices like the proliferation of firearms on campus. There are all areas we are trying to resist. 

Edward Brudney, Assistant Professor, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Involvement in Local Elections:


UCW-TN has a Political Action Committee that leads any work involving legislation and local and statewide elections. Through the Political Action Committee, UCW-TN has scouted and endorsed candidates, introduced new legislation, and led forums and public listening sessions on specific issues.

One of the most notable roles of the UCW is their recruitment and presence for lobby days at the State House in Nashville. UCW partners with other unions (i.e. the Teamsters) and community organizations (i.e. SOCM) to join lobby days and bring awareness to issues of higher education workers and working class people across Tennessee. Each legislative session, UCW-TN brings hundreds of people to the State House to lobby on issues that center higher education workers and working class people across Tennessee. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, UCW held virtual lobby days. These virtual sessions paved the way for UCW-led  trainings to teach members and general public folks how to plan a meeting and talk with their legislatures. They also meet with aligned candidates during off season to discuss emerging issues and collaborate with elected officials to hold forums about what they are seeing and expecting from the upcoming legislative session.

UCW-TN Political Action Committee members also draft legislation and share it with legislatures that are aligned. Some legislation introduced by UCW-TN includes the following demands:

  • limit public university administrators' pay raises to the full pool of workers
  • a flat raise of $1500 across job categories 
  • a requirement to provide safety equipment to Housing workers
  • Adjunct pay increase

The Political Action Committee also leads the UCW-TN endorsement process. They send out surveys to candidates to gauge each candidate's position on key topics. Based on their responses, candidates are asked to present  at local meetings and engage in a Q&A discussion. After these presentations, chapters decide which candidate to endorse for the upcoming session. 




Case Studies

This section of the report highlights three case studies, including the Fight(s) for A Living Wage, The Tennessee is Not for Sale Campaign, and UCW Worker Protection in Critical Times, e.g. COVID-19. The purpose of the case studies is to take a deeper dive into strategies, wins, demands, key highlights and lessons learned.


Fight For a Living Wage

Living Wage on Campus Poster

Campaigns for a living wage have taken many forms throughout UCW-TN’s history. Informed by members on the ground, different job categories were prioritized to meet the greatest needs at the time. Due to the rising cost of living, the fight for a living wage will continue. Some UCW-TN chapters are implementing a $25 by 2025 campaign, while others are still fighting to secure $15 per hour as a minimum wage. We share the wins below to add depth and provide insight to the journey towards victories. 

One of UCW-TN’s earliest campaigns was a fight against forced overtime for Housing and Facilities workers. The University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) depends on revenue from holding conferences while students are away. UTK packs people into the dorms and employees are often faced with cleaning the dorms at a very fast pace. Workers were faced with mandatory 60-70 hour work weeks while students were away. Staff were often working in hot conditions due to older buildings not having adequate air conditioning. UCW-TN ran a campaign to stop forced overtime and eventually won, leading to voluntary overtime as a new practice across campus.

In 2005, UCW’s Knoxville chapter secured a $1 per hour increase for all hourly workers, totaling up to $600 total minimum raise that year. Before this victory, the average raise for hourly workers was $30 total. This pay increase had the greatest impact on custodial, facilities, housing, and administrative assistants, most of whom were minorities and women. 

In 2007, UCW-TN, with heavy involvement from the Chattanooga chapter, lobbied the state legislature to demand that adequate cost of living raises must come before any merit-based raises. This lobbying led to a reversal of the Petersen pay plan and the implementation of 3% raises across the board.

Started in 2019, UCW’s Fight for $15 campaign was a fight to raise the minimum raise to $15 per hour. This campaign was led by custodial workers, but every hourly higher education worker received a raise. Each campus used tactics and strategies unique to their locality to win this campaign. In January 2021, UCW’s Memphis chapter put pressure on the University of Memphis’ president via the Staff Association and partnered with the Mayor Lee Harris of Memphis to meet their demands. Mayor Lee Harris threatened to withhold funding from the University of Memphis unless they agreed to a $15 minimum wage. In October 2021, UCW’s Knoxville chapter won the Fight for $15. In May 2023, UCW’s Chattanooga chapter approached University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to demand a $15 minimum wage and won. 

The fight for $15 an hour in Memphis is important and key. We put pressure on the University of Memphis. Mayor of the county was a former UCW member because he was a professor. We organized the president of the staff association to put pressure on the president. We developed an inside-outside strategy that was impactful. The campaign was started and led by Black women and has continued to be led by women. 

Jayanni Webster, former UCW West TN Organizer


Book graphic


UCW-TN has fought for payment raises for all Lecturers, regardless of their degree. Lecturer pay is historically decided based on highest degree and departmental budgets. As part of its Adjuncts United campaign, UCW-TN has introduced bills to raise lecturers' pay minimums several times. Though none of the bills passed into law, they raised awareness and public consciousness and applied pressure to elected officials. These series of campaigns and bills, eventually led to an increase to adjunct pay raises across universities. 

In 2021, Lecturer minimum pay was raised from $40,000 to $45,000. Some workers received a $7,000 raise because of this campaign. However, people who have worked at their university for a number of years were now at the same pay level with people who had just started working there. There was an overflow of dissent towards the Dean and Provost and UCW-TN members organized to get their voices heard. Eventually, they formalized their demands to include compression raises for promoted Lecturers and Lecturers who had spent years working at the university. Their demands were received and compression raises were won at UTK.  

One group’s win does have  trickle effects. Immediately people who had been here a while were suddenly at the same pay level with people who had just gotten here. I also heard about someone in facilities who had been here a long time, and now he’s making the same amount as his son. Can’t raise the floor and do nothing for those who have been here a long time. Now it is addressed in any campaign about pay.

Mia Romano, Chapter President, UTK

Key strategy and tactics in the fight for a living wage include: 

  • Partnering with Jobs with Justice and Fight for $15 organization to bring awareness, beyond college campuses, across the state
  • Building solidarity across campus by engaging union members wall-to wall
  • UTK held a 18 year birthday party for the adjunct scale. Adjunct pay had not been raised in 18 years, so UCW-TN members and allies hosted a public birthday party to raise awareness and recruit support. 
  • Organizing buses to Nashville from across the state to lobby and pressure legislatures.
  • Engaging and partnering with community groups
  • Interfacing with administrations, including, holding a forum with the UTK Dean of Graduate Schools and meeting with the Chancellor of UTK
  • Press conferences
  • Rallies
  • Public gatherings and teach-ins
  • Petitions and signature collection
  • Press coverage

TN Is Not For Sale

Outsourcing was the prime example of the work we were trying to bring to light. In the TN is not For Sale Campaign, everyone stood together showing this union wasn’t just for one type of job. 

Cassie Watters, former UCW organizer


Tennessee Is Not For Sale, the umbrella name for the campaign to stop Gov. Haslam’s plan to outsource custodial, housing and maintenance positions on Tennessee campuses was a tremendous campaign for UCW and a huge win for all across the state. The campaign energized active members, inspired less active members to turn up their involvement, and recruited new people to the union. It put a face on the people who do the behind the scenes work, as well as demonstrated the impact on all positions including professors, other staff and students. Perhaps most of all, it provided an invaluable lesson for all involved. You can fight what is being positioned as a done deal, and win.

From student at the time, Eli S, 

A month or so after I got involved (in the union) there was a listening tour where two members of the state legislature, Reps. Lee Harris and John Ray Clemmons, held public hearings to sit down and talk with workers facing outsourcing.  The one at UT was held at the Black Student Union, and I remember the moderator asking everyone on the panel, ‘How would outsourcing affect you?’ One response was from a woman who spoke of not being able to care for her aging mother if she lost her job. Another was a plumber who shared the story of a pipe bursting in a dorm at 2 am, right at the end of his shift, and how he stayed to fix it, and what would happen if you had to call out to a call center and wait for someone to get there. That was totally eye opening for me to hear workers talk about their livelihood and their commitment to doing their work well, to connect a human face to a policy issue like that.

What always comes to mind first is the TN is Not For Sale Campaign. We were successful at giving everyone an angle from their position why this was harmful to campus. Obviously, it was bad for custodians to be fired, to lose your job. From a human to human standpoint, that’s easy to understand.  BUT if you are faculty, and have outsourcing on your campus, you may or may not be in a building that has your trash removed. If you work late and don’t know a regular workforce, who is handling your safety to your car? From a scientific standpoint, who is taking care of sensitive equipment?

 Melanie Barron, CWA, Senior Campaign Lead

Outsourcing came and that was the existential shift in the union. Though it threatened a certain set of workers, the impact was clear it would be university wide, and that was our pitch. That is how we got so many people involved. When you think about scientists and their equipment, they need folks they know and can rely on. You think about women faculty and safety in the classroom and their offices at night and what that means with a revolving door security. And teachers like me wanting a clean classroom with technology that works.

Jon Shefner, UTK Professor, former Executive Committee


 UCW’s tactics and strategies were clear, creative, and applied consistent pressure from multiple vantage points. They included:

  • Countless marches and rallies on campuses across the state in Memphis, Nashville, Murfreesboro, Chattanooga and Knoxville with press coverage.
  • Press conferences at strategic points to counter the false narratives put out by the Haslam administration. For example, the ruse that it would save money.
  • Worked with legislators, some of whom conducted public hearings on the impact.
  • Engaged the wall-to-wall union in showing how outsourcing affected everyone on the campus.
  • Organized sub bodies on campuses, including Faculty Senate and other affiliations.
  • Produced 60 second videos of service working talking about their jobs and their loyalty to the university.
  • Used media campaigns to get people to call their legislators during drive times.
  • Engaged student groups.
  • Engaged community groups.
  • Engaged the faith community and faith leaders.
  • Collected signatures on petitions.
  • Knowing outsourcing also affected contracts and supplies, engaged vendors and family- owned businesses that would be impacted as well.
  • Conducted demonstrations at Pilot Gas stations because the Haslam family had a controlling interest there.
  • Organized buses to Nashville from across the state to pressure the legislature.
  • Organized a Haslam Scholars Letter to the Governor.
  • And a crown jewel of creative and impactful direct action, the roll out of a scroll with petitioner names.

Thousands of signatures opposing outsourcing were collected and a graphic artist put the names on a large butcher paper scroll nearly 40 feet long, rolled out on the floor of the Cordell Hull Building where legislative committees were meeting.  As legislators came out of the rooms, they found themselves surrounded by the voices of over a hundred UCW activists chanting TENNESSEE IS NOT FOR SALE. UT Locksmith, Ed McDaniel, remembers the humor in seeing legislators “jump over the scroll and act afraid to touch them.” Seeing legislators have to navigate around the scroll meant they had to acknowledge it.

 The first win was in the final decision to give institutions an opportunity to opt out if they didn’t want to outsource. The second win was in how many universities chose to do so. Jon Shefner was at the gym when his phone rang with a call from the University of Tennessee Chancellor saying that University of Tennessee was not going to outsource. Only two schools across Tennessee opted in. That was UCW’s impact.

 The effects of the campaign rippled beyond outsourcing alone. “Outsourcing gave us a strong base and made the work stronger. It has allowed consistent raises and pushed the administration to listen to us more.

Ed McDaniel, Locksmith, UTK


Pipe graphic


Challenges and Growth Points

Members expressed thoughtful reflections on the challenges and growth points of UCW. These quotes from the interviews are organized by themes below, including demographics of the union and race and class; political climate and external threats; and, structural and internal challenges. These statements come from the people interviewed and offer areas of needed conversation and action for UCW-TN leadership and members.

Demographics of the Union: Race and Class

“Statewide leadership is mostly white. It’s a reflection of the union starting in Knoxville and the base building is strongest there. We have to make sure leadership development is focused and spread across the state.” 

“Even though some of the founding people of our union were Black women at UT, the racial dynamics are skewed to white members. Realistically, the union has been a white majority and thus white led and that has just always been hard.”

“To be honest, the leadership looks a lot different than when I was active in 2013. The leadership is not representative of blue collar folks. Are there custodians on the Executive Board? People of color?”

“When you have a wall to wall union, you really have to be cognizant of culture. A faculty or ivory tower culture can be off putting to blue collar people.”

“We need to plant more seeds in the facilities departments. Middle management doesn't treat people well there and should be addressed.”

“We need more Black people on the Executive Committee and as paid organizers.”

“There is a significant dynamic to be aware of that Memphis is a majority Black city and that a lot of the big wins that we have had here and across the state have been driven by low wage black workers. Super important dynamic to be aware of when talking about organizing here.”

“There is the real and perceived privilege status of professors. It works both ways. Hard to get professors to see themselves as workers. They can often join out of progressive sympathies, not out of assessment that the bosses are the problem. At the same time, others don’t see professors as workers and have little understanding of what we do.”

Structural and Internal Challenges

“We don’t have the ability to deduct dues from people’s payroll. Have to ask them for their bank account when they join.”

“There needs to be a focus on community building. People need to feel more connected to the union. It might mean scaling back and focusing inward.”

“Told what to do next but there isn’t political education or internal conversations to help membership fully understand.”

 “I mean we have all these members and how do you organize them? There was so much emphasis on signing new people up, and was signing them up for a monthly chapter meeting, and we just didn’t have the internal structures to pull people in and really engage them.”

“Ongoing challenge is that we get people to join the union, but it is hard to get them to come to a meeting.”

“I think UCW struggles over the role of staff and needing staff and sometimes too staff led and focused. We don’t want staff to have too much say and at the same time, we want them to run campaigns.”

“Organizers don’t make big salaries, workload is high, and this is a lot of field work and (much needed) worker organizing.”

“People are very busy, burned out, overwhelmed and overworked. It is a challenge to get and keep members in union leadership.”

“Internal policies are needed and need to be made more clear inside UCW. While we advocate for workers, UCW staff are also workers.”

“It’s a hard job to stay in long term.”

“It is sometimes like pushing a boulder up a mountain.”

“Always more to do than can possibly be done. Setting priorities and deciding what matters and what doesn’t can be really hard. Sometimes you decide something matters and turns out, members don’t care about that at all. Campuses are full of so many issues.”

“Staff and facilities workers do such different things. It’s hard to bring them together for a meeting. You have to go talk to people and then they go talk to people, so it’s spreading out a meeting into a million conversations.”

“There is an interesting tension in the union, though tension may be too strong a word. People feel differently about who we support politically. I am, ‘who can we get things done with’ while others are ‘their politics aren’t left enough’. Tennessee is a super majority state and we can’t just count on the rare people like Gloria Johnson.“  

What It Takes to Organize

Quote overheard from campus administrator. “If you see one of those union organizers, call campus security.”

“It was very hard for me to talk to people in a contentious atmosphere where you get doors slammed in your face or police called on you, and you had to hide behind a dumpster.”

“I met with a person at Pellissippi State and her boss came in and threw me out of the office. They looked me up on social media, screenshot my picture and warned people to stay away from me.”

“I have had security guards follow me to my car.”

“Biggest adjustment for me was how to organize and push for change and also be attentive to people’s fears about job security, especially in TN where union is a dirty word.”

“Decision makers on campus are becoming more and more willing to push white supremacy policies.” 

And this story from Meghan Cullen, Memphis, following the Fight for 15 win.  

When the university raised their wages, they did title changes for custodial workers. They were now called Building Service Technicians, put on a 6 month probation and many moved to the night shift. That was purposeful and one of the biggest impacts because they also had jobs at night because of living in multi generational households where they were caretakers of the family. It was a massive disruption to folks everyday working life. It pushed some people out. We were able to petition against it, and some folks went back to their original shift, but for a lot of folks it was a big readjustment for their lives.

You are the union pointing finger

Political Climate and External Threats

“Political divisions are a concern. The union has people across the spectrum. It’s becoming more and more difficult to cross those lines. The divide seems to be growing.” Tom Anderson, UCW Member, former president, Facilities Services, UTK   

“As we see the south polarize in a scary way not in our favor, in part due to gerrymandering and voter suppression, but I do think a lot of people in the south are getting radicalized and not in a good way. It is not just legislators. Something is happening at the base.” Thomas Walker, former UCW organizer, CWA staff, Washington DC

“Biggest challenge: how to work with the state government of TN. And how to approach those relationships with our members; how some of these different issues, Roe. V Wade and the expulsions of Reps. Pearson and Jones are connected to UCW.” Justin Davis, former West TN Organizer

“It can’t be talked about enough. The legislature in the last ten years is always a challenge. Attacks on sex week. Diversity issues. Divisive concepts law. The university as a workplace is under attack across the nation, but especially in the south.” Jon Shefner, UTK Professor, former Executive Committee

“We need to fight the right fight. Every school has its own governing/bargaining board, so it is harder to have a collective fight.” Michael Principe, Middle Tennessee State University

“We are always facing a lot of threats from the ‘business school’ edification of the university as a whole, the move toward more and more a corporate model.” Sarah Eldridge, Tenured Faculty, UTK

Solidarity Fists Raised Together

Vision For the Future

Commemorating an anniversary is a significant time to reflect on where an organization goes from there and envision its future. This aspect was intentionally built in as a core part of this anniversary process. Spurred by UCW successes to date, and keenly aware of the challenges of the current times on campuses and in overall societal and civic life, UCW-TN members have great hopes and vision for the next 25 years.

  • Build political power. 
  • Grow larger (increased membership and more staff) but “stay scrappy”. 
  • Be a progressive Influence in TN and the Southeast.
  • Win collective bargaining. 
  • Address root causes. 
  • Continue to be a model and inspiration for other states. 

It’s important to talk with people about vision despite what they feel they are up against.

Cassie Watters, former UCW Organizer

I was at a labor conference and people were talking about 50,000 members. What if we really did get 50k members - If we had that kind of growth and dues revenues coming in, we could change the world down here. What would it take to get there? An army of well trained and active union members talking to their co-workers every week!  

Melanie Barron, CWA Senior Campaign Lead

In 25 years, I would love to be a bargaining unit that existed within the National Labor Relations Act. Even if we don’t get collective bargaining, make UCW into such a force and important body for state workers that it has to be respected at the state capital and elsewhere.

Josh Symser, Member, Chemistry Dept, UTK


This sentiment of ‘a force to be reckoned with’ was echoed widely. Part of that growth and power includes the vision of expanding to be on every southeast campus. On the campuses where UCW already exists, the vision is to become such a force that recruitment isn’t even necessary. 

I envision us having strong unions at all colleges in southeast. To have a wall to wall industry of unions in the south that can take on a collective fight, take militant direct action and mobilize our members to force universities to do something.

Karly Safar, CWA Senior Campaign Lead

I want to see us on every campus of southeastern universities. And I would hope that people search for the union when they come to university, that they seek us out first and ask how do I join 

Rick Kurtz, first V.P. of MTSU Chapter

In my vision, UCW would be just one vibrant, grassroots source of collective action amongst a rising tide of workers pushing for their rights across the state. The more we win, the more power we have for all workers. There is an incredible opportunity in the South to plant seeds that grow to build a union that is its members. If there is to be a labor resurgence, let it come from the South.

Bill Taylor, Member, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga 

I hope that UCW can expand to more departments, especially the sciences. And more penetration at extension offices in rural areas.

Adam Hughes, SOCM, sustaining supporter

The wall to wall has radical potential. I hope that UCW grows and, even as it grows, it stays scrappy and intimate.

Steph Butera, Member, Memphis

My vision is for UCW to continue showing the possibilities of organizing public sector workers. I would love for the legislature to think more and more that we are a force to be reckoned with.

Diana Moyer, former UCW President, UTK

What happens on Tennessee campuses and what is happening in broader society are, of course, intrinsically connected, and UCW members recognize that. They want UCW-TN to be a progressive force, on campus and off. Named as critical strategies and tactics to UCW’s growth, power and impact include:

  • Involvement in local and state elections;
  • continuing to organize campaigns that address material conditions led by the most affected; 
  • connecting with local, state and national partners; 
  • intersectional working class organizing;
  • and, organizing that keeps UCW connected to other progressive issues. 

I really do believe UCW can play a leading role in changing the political climate and power in our state.

Dana Smith, former UCW Lead Organizer

I am hoping the union can uplift all the related issues (gun reform, LGBTQ issues, gender rights, etc.) and that we continue to be a beacon of light.

Edward McDaniel, UCW Member, Locksmith, UTK; former UCW President

I am really interested in, and hope, UCW will be part of coalition work. We have done some of that, leading some and being members in others. If you look at what the Right is doing, coalition work is where it’s at.  And in 2024, a coalition is desperately needed to keep the fascists from coming back into office. All these attacks … climate, workers, immigrants. All of these should be in the conversation of coalition work. My vision for the future. Greater union growth, but that unions play a real and substantial role in progressive coalitions.

Jon Shefner, Professor, UTK Professor, former Executive Committee

Living through the TN 3 is transformational. I feel unsettled now. Watching them say we live in a state that kills children and nothing will be done about it. Yes, we have to have campaigns for a living wage, but it can’t be in isolation from coalitions we want to build with. I want Tennesseans to be healthy and well. We need to be paid and compensated as workers. But we also need access to childcare, gun reform.

Anne Langendorfer, UCW President, Non-tenured Professor

Anti-racism conversations and implicit bias trainings are absolutely necessary. And part of the work needs to focus on LGBTQ+ community members within academia. It’s shameful what our state is doing. Even just getting preferred pronouns on an application was a fight and I think UCW has a place in that fight. 

Meghan Cullen, Vice-President, Memphis Chapter.


Divisive concepts law, heavily on people’s minds, and other attacks on higher education are more than a chilling effect. They put the very public education system itself at risk and members see UCW as having a critical role to play in the fight, both on campus and off. 

There is an effort to privatize education. There is a lot of money that goes into public education and private companies want it.

Thomas Anderson, UCW Member, former president, Facilities Services, UTK

On a philosophical level, it’s crucial to make the case that college education is not just training for a specific job, but training students for participation in democracy and society.

Sarah Eldridge, Tenured Faculty, UTK

I hope we can save higher education. So many people are vying for control of higher ed. We need to make sure people’s voices are heard. 

Rick Kurtz, first V.P. of MTSU Chapter

UCW-TN has already inspired UCW unions across TN and the country, including eight other southeastern states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia, and nationally, Arizona and Colorado. There is strong hope that UCW-TN continues to play this inspirational, instructive and informative role, especially for right to work states.

I hope we can provide a model for places where there are right-to-work laws. I hope we continue to experiment and have successes with models of non-collective bargaining. Our model is the model of the future. We can’t rely on collective bargaining, legal maneuvers and rights in the fight for worker justice, worker rights and worker power. At the basic level, union organizing is moving people out of isolation and into collective action in order to carry out a strategy and advance the fight for unions.

Jayanni Webster, former UCW West TN Organizer

I would love to see UCW’s work fit even more neatly with some of these other nationwide conversations and in the south where there is new energy for labor organizing. Those efforts at Starbucks and Amazon, the writers’ strike, and all the different places where grad students are going on strike, I would love to see people talking about UCW in those same kinds of conversations. I would love long term to see UCW really get fully recognized as a model for how to organize.

Justin Davis, former West TN Organizer

Winning collective bargaining is a long term vision for some, not named by others, with all making it clear that UCW’s work marches on regardless. 

I’m hoping we can continue to have people join the union and in the next 20-25 years, have 50% of workers across the state join our union. Then we can finally make a vote and get collective bargaining. Collective bargaining will help get us raises, protect us at work, and make sure working conditions are healthy and safe.

Ed McDaniel, Locksmith, UTK

UCW is a fascinating opportunity to add something like collective bargaining in the South.

Melanie Barron, CWA Senior Campaign Lead

More long term, in 10-20 years – that we’re allowed to collectively bargain and enter into contacts collectively.

Anne Langendorfer, Faculty, UTK, UCW President

It doesn't matter if we are in a red state, conservative state, or don't have collective bargaining - we really take seriously the bread and butter organizing, running campaigns, and leverage our relationship to the state (as state employees).

Jayanni Webster, former West TN Organizer

Within the vision section, some members addressed the issues UCW faces internally.

My vision is more modest. I just want to see the bedrock foundation stay strong and the internal structure be able to pull in all these different members. That is what enables everything else to happen, to build bigger campaigns, to expand to new areas. It is important that UCW is a strong organization in our region and our state. In this political climate, it is important for everyone, not just members.

Eli S., former UCW East TN Organizer

Expand the multi-class, multi race, multi political nature of the union. UCW can start to build the gap between urban and rural workers and people. We need to build capacity AND keep the grassroots culture. I hope it continues to go deep and wide and really build radical racial justice and democracy in the state of TN.

Jayanni Webster, former UCW West TN Organizer

Interviews also lifted up goals of repealing the right to work out of Tennessee’s state constitution, getting more involved in local elections, impacting the state budget for higher education, and enhancing the political education of union members. Repealing the right to work laws and being involved in elections go hand in hand.

There is a scrappiness and grassroots characteristic that our legal situation gives us being in a right to work state. We have made significant achievements in the last 20 years with this, but it’s worthwhile to think about if we ever get rid of the right to work in Tennessee in the same way Michigan did.

Dani Urquieta, UCW Organizer and Former Member

Continue growing to be able to get to where we could repeal the right to work out of the state constitution in Tennessee. Obviously, that’s big.

Scott Martindale, Long-Time Member, Middle TN State University, 

Right to work is a constitutional amendment in Tennessee now. Organize people to not only change things on their campus but change the power in the state. Have the power to change who is elected and the really undemocratic norm in our state.

Dana Smith, UCW Lead Organizer

My other dream is for union members to run in local elections and win to try and disband the stronghold on politics that the Republican supermajority have in Tennessee. I want great political impact coming from UCW. I’m interested to see what would happen if we had our people and progressive voices in local seats of power leading to a better and more left future, directly from our membership.

Dani Urquieta, UCW Organizer and Former Member

Mop and bucket


UCW has much to celebrate in the accomplishments and contributions of its 20 year history. These takeaways provide a few key elements of some highlights and recommendations for further thinking and action.

  1. UCW has always been able to punch above its weight.

UCW is known for great organizers, well run creative campaigns with clear targets, and effective strategies and tactics to achieve the goals. As UCW continues to embody its vision of growth and impact, it will navigate even bigger challenges of political divides, consolidating union member alignment, and capacity.  These are leadership, as well as rank and file, questions for consistent attention, discussion and action.

  1. The wins have transformed people’s workplaces and lives in concrete ways, and beyond.

At all positions in the wall to wall union, UCW has achieved wins that have practical impact on people’s material lives, which of course then impacts all other areas of a person’s life. Additionally, it has inspired courage, hope, and friendship among union members. UCW has become a political home for people who were already union friendly and helped dispel myths and stereotypes of unions for others. Continued active campaigns and attention to internal areas that need strengthening will continue to position UCW to be a powerful influence on Tennessee campuses, and a model for union organizing for other states.

  1. The wall to wall union strategy is central to the success of UCW.

While also a challenge for positions in a university that range from housekeeping to tenured faculty, solidarity in action from the wall to wall union has been key to UCW’s impact. It has put a human face on people in behind the scenes positions and increased understanding of what people do across job classifications. The context of health pandemics, a growing scary political climate, the inherent strategy of corporate power doing all it can to maintain that power, and everyone being asked to do more with less makes organizing challenging especially for people who are doing it as volunteers. It is crucial for UCW to continue to grow and deepen the possibilities and strength of the wall to wall union, and dedicate even more leadership and staff attention to that in the coming years.

  1. Covid had a dramatic impact on the work of the union.

There have been many challenging events and context in UCW’s two decades of work, and just as much as any is the impact of the covid pandemic. It particularly hit the smaller chapters or chapters in leadership transitions. Interviewees spoke of feelings of isolation and being overwhelmed, the challenge of converting to meetings by zoom, the impact of covid on remote learning and work, and the reminder that a repressive state government could and did overrule campuses, even in matters of health and safety protocols. Covid also highlighted unsafe conditions that workers faced which led to organizing opportunities, and gains, and built deeper understanding for sectors across the board to see themselves as workers, including faculty. There are many lessons from the covid experiences and consolidating those lessons helps prepare for future challenges.

  1. This is a critical time for universities, and democracy in general, and the climate going forward is ever more difficult. UCW’s vision for the work is bold and needed more than ever.

Essentially so, serious concern is on the minds of UCW members about the political climate that is employing multi-pronged attacks on people and institutions. These attacks threaten rights of people based on identities, attack academic freedom while rewriting history and thwarting conversations that affect marginalized people, and threatens democracy in the US itself. While some admit to struggling with hope, it is also clear that UCW is well-positioned to be a key player in this fight. As UCW pays attention to how campaigns are run, looks toward the current win as well as how the campaign builds a stronger and more robust union and chips away at root causes, UCW can intensity and scale up its impact on TN, the southeast and country.

I don’t know that we (progressives) have great answers for the challenges that are emerging. We are getting out-run and don’t have a good plan for keeping up or to defend what we’ve got. It needs a multi-generational approach, and UCW is in a good position to do something about that because of its fundamental nature as a union and workplace based social movement.

Thomas Walker, former UCW organizer, CWA staff, Washington DC

The genius about the community college system is that they are all over the state and in rural areas where it’s hard to find a base and a way in. UCW is one of those places where that can happen.

Fran Ansley, UTK Law Professor, retired; Jobs with Justice

We need organizations with a statewide reach to fight the fascists wanna-be’s with power now.

Dennis Prater, East Tennessee State University, Chapter Vice President

The university is the place where I was able to put theories into practice and see the complexities and contradictions that come when you are actually trying to do this thing with real people. Even now, I do really strongly believe that intersectional working class organizing, that is the model. 

Darcy Ayers

Some of the goals we talked about 20 years ago seemed pie in the sky and now we are living in some of those benefits. We have to remember that. 

Mayor Lee Harris, Shelby County


Personal Transformation and How Members Thought About Work Problems Before

Organizations are made up of people, so if it’s good organizing, which UCW has consistently had, organizational work, structural analysis of a problem and personal growth go hand in hand. That is certainly true for members of UCW-TN.

People active at different times over the years with UCW-TN, talked about the impact on their own personal transformation and growth.

I would say that being involved in UCW completely changed the trajectory of my life.

My anthropology major had taught me all these things wrong with our economic system but not how to do anything about changing it. Once involved with UCW, it became obvious that the missing piece was organizing.

Eli S, former organizer

A person told me one time, by me being in the union, you don’t have a life. I told them I was able to get out and march and go out of town and meet people and speak out. This is my life.’

Thelma Jean Rimmer, Memphis, former Chapter Vice-President, custodial worker 

The inherent social nature of being part of a group, and building that group through effort and intention and not by accident, is transforming.

Josh Smyser, Chemistry Dept, UTK

Having the union gives me hope. 

Diana Moyer, Former UCW President, Knoxville

Even though the state doesn’t recognize our right to collective bargaining, UCW doesn’t stop. That’s a tremendous model. 

Dennis Prater, East Tennessee State University, Chapter Vice President

Truth be told, just by me being affiliated with the union, has allowed me to build up my nerve to speak out more. I have always been able to speak and tell people how I feel, but the union helped me with speaking to a big crowd without being ashamed. They opened me up on that.

Tony Patton, former employee, UT Health Science Center

How we create change has been part of my university experience the whole time, and to put all of that social justice into praxis beyond the classroom was transformational for me.

Darcy Ayers, Graduate Student, UTK

I didn’t have a lot of good experiences in confronting bad workplaces. Didn’t know how to change anything about work. When I joined the union, I had just taken a big pay cut. Being in the union, I had a community of people to talk with about that instead of ‘that’s just the way it is.’ The union gave me a framework that it doesn’t have to be that way. It completely changed the way I think about wor​k and what happens at work. Can't just sit by yourself and do nothing. You will find people who want to do that with you. 

Melanie Barron, CWA Senior Campaign Lead

I have become less didactic and much more comfortable with ambiguity, and that relates to a patience question and that people don’t fit into easy boxes.

Thomas Walker, former UCW organizer, CWA staff, Washington DC

I am transformed in how I think about relationships. I have stayed longer than I thought. Watching some union organizers bounce around different states, that is uninteresting to me now. The deeper longer work is slower and less sexy but what is necessary for building power.

Dana Smith, former UCW Lead Organizer, Nashville

It opened the door for me to be more radicalized.

Scott Martindale, Long-Time Member, Middle TN State University, Murfreesboro

Being part of the union has given me the confidence to be a pain in the ass when I need to be. It gave me courage and confidence to speak on behalf of myself and on behalf of others.

And the way I think about being a person at work, it has gotten me out of an individual achievement mindset to a collective mindset.

Sarah Eldridge, Tenured Faculty, UTK

Being in the union has connected me to Memphis in a different way. I come from a community organizing background, but organizing in a workplace pushed me to think about building community and building power with people in a different way. And part of building power is working through fear, working with people who know what they need and want, and have fear of retaliation.

Justin Davis, former West TN Organizer

Joining allowed me to see myself as a worker. I didn’t see myself as that before.

Anne Langendorfer, President, UCW-TN

Talking Workers

How Members Thought of Work Before

In the individualistic society of the U.S.A., we are taught to think of workplace problems as our own problem. We didn’t work hard enough. We didn’t work smart enough.  Or we believe that we just made a bad decision about where to work. 


UCW members rally for living wages at the University of Memphis

One of the core strengths of UCW-TN is helping people move from seeing these workplace issues as individuals to a structural analysis. It helps people understand how these issues affect others as well, and that these structural issues could only be addressed through organizing.

“Back in 2017, I was feeling some hopelessness and generally not sure what to do. I didn’t have the analysis that other people might be facing the same issues as me or that there might be something I could do. Turns out UCW was the answer to both of these. Union work plugged me in. Took me to knowing people. What it means for union work to be connected to political work. What it means to fight white supremacy. What it means to be organizing in the south where massive numbers of Black workers hold these positions. The base-building needed was a most valuable lesson to me. To build a base you have to be talking with people, including people who don’t already agree with you.” 

Allison Becha, UCW East TN Organizer

“As far as approaching problems, before joining, it was ‘just cope and deal with it’. Put your head down and bear it. After joining the union, it is nice to know I have a team and group of people in the same boat who can also relate their experiences to me, and have an apparatus for addressing that stuff.” 

Scott Martindale, Long-Time Member, Middle TN State University

“Being a TA completely shifted how I thought about my relationship to being a worker on campus. It felt like when I became a TA somebody pulled back the curtain. People talk about your department being like a family, that the department is invested in seeing you thrive … then the heavy workload starts and it was really about ‘get this work done and slug through it;    that’s just a condition of being a grad student’.”

Justin Davis, former West TN Organizer

“Before joining, I just looked at my department as only the place where decisions were made. I

didn’t know what was happening across campus. We are divided by languages in our own department, and didn’t know what was happening in other language programs, much less what was going on in the English Department, or the Math Department. This is where UCW is really strategic. A department head might fix something for you, for one person, but not a large group.” 

Mia Romano, Chapter President, UTK

“I realized I wasn’t going to just perform my way to better conditions or pay. No amount of doing a good job will fix the injustices of those structures. You have to do things with other people…. even, and especially, when you and they are imperfect.”

Sarah Eldridge, Tenured Faculty, UTK

“Life is tough, it's easy to lose hope.  Our Union and its people are a family to me.  This gives me hope for a better tomorrow.  We stand on the shoulder of giants, names I don't know.  I have hope that what we do, and what other worker unions do today, to put in the work will make a safer and secure future place for ALL workers no matter color, gender or nationality.”

 Ed McDaniel, Locksmith, UTK

Solidarity fists


Thank you to our interviewees for providing insight into UCW-TN’s impact and path forward! 

  • Adam Hughes

  • Allison Becha

  • Amanda Lee Savage

  • Anne Langendorfer

  • Bill Taylor

  • Cameron Brooks

  • Cassie Watters

  • Dana Smith

  • Dani Urquieta

  • Darcy Ayers

  • Dennis Prater

  • Diana Moyer

  • Ed McDaniel

  • Eddie Brudney

  • Eli S.

  • Fran Ansley

  • Jayanni Webster

  • Jon Shefner

  • Josh Smyser

  • Justin Davis

  • Karly Safar

  • Mayor Lee Harris

  • Meghan Cullen

  • Melanie Barron

  • Mia Romano

  • Michael Principe

  • Rick Kurtz

  • Sandy Hicks

  • Sarah Eldridge

  • Scott Martindale 

  • Steph Butera

  • Thelma Jean Rimmer

  • Thomas Walker

  • Tom Anderson

  • Tom Smith

  • Tony Patton


UCW-TN’s 20th Anniversary Report Steering Committee

Amanda Lee Savage, Instructor, University of Memphis

Dana Smith, former UCW Lead Organizer

Jon Shefner, UTK Professor, former Executive Committee

Michael Principe, Middle Tennessee State University


UCW-TN’s Current Executive Board Members (as of August 2023)

President: Anne Langendorfer, Lecturer at UTK

Executive Vice President: Shukura Umi, Graduate Worker at the University of Memphis

Secretary: Clarisa Castillo, Graduate Worker at UTK

Treasurer: Kathryn Hicks, Associate Professor at the University of Memphis

East TN representative: Bill Taylor, Assistant Professor at Pellissippi State Community College

Middle TN representative: Lori Danley, Writing Center Teacher at Tennessee State University

West TN representative: Tony Patton, Electrician at UTHSC

Policy & Campaign Committee Co-Chairs: Jon Shefner, Professor at UTK and Clay Trainum, Library Staff at MTSU


Current UCW-TN Chapters (as of August 2023)

Austin Peay State University

Chattanooga State Community College

Eastern Tennessee State University

Lemoyne-Owen College

Middle Tennessee State University

Pellissippi State Community College

Southwest Tennessee Community College

Tennessee State University

Tennessee Tech University

University of Memphis

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

University of Tennessee at Knoxville

University of Tennessee Health Science Center

University of Tennessee - Martin


Current and Former Organizing Staff of UCW

Allison Becha

Ash-Lee Woodard-Henderson

Cameron Brooks

Cassie Waters

Dana Smith

Dani Urquieta

Eli S

Henry Jones

Karly Safar

Jayanni Webster

Jessica Buttermore

Justin Davis

Marian Butcher

Melanie Barron

Patrick Cate

Robin Miller

Sherly (last name?)

Taylor Cook

Thomas Walker

Tom Smith


20th Anniversary Project Consultants

Kierra Sims brings over a decade of experience as a youth organizer in the U.S. South and central Appalachia, focusing on the school to prison pipeline, introducing restorative practices to young people, and creating a just transition away from a coal dependent economy. She is a facilitator, movement builder, and educator that is dedicated to moving resources to radical, imaginative ideas. In 2017, Kierra traveled to Nepal, Jordan, and Chile, as Trustees Fellow with IHP Human Rights, where she learned from folks building and embodying solidarity economy principles as a form of resistance and an offering of love to the land and their ancestors. From 2014-2017, she served on the Education Team at Highlander Research and Education Center where she played an anchoring role in both the Appalachian Transition Fellowship and the Seeds of Fire program. She currently serves on the Advisory Board of Power U Center for Social Change. Kierra earned a Bachelor's degree in Religion from Wofford College while studying the role of the church in social movements.

Pam McMichael’s extensive experience in social justice work includes grassroots organizing, workshop and training design and facilitation, strategic planning, organizational development and transition coaching. For twelve years, she served as the Executive Director of the renowned Highlander Research and Education Center. She has co-founded impactful organizations from the local to national, including the Fairness Campaign in Louisville and across Kentucky; is a founding co-director of the regional Southerners on New Ground; and a lead co-founder of the national Showing Up for Racial Justice. She was the contract organizer for the 10th anniversary event of Kentucky Jobs with Justice, which included interviews and documenting the history, writing a choral performance of the history, and anchoring the celebratory event. Art and culture are always intrinsically integrated in her work. She is currently lives in Louisville, KY.