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UCW History



In early 1999, student activists from the Progressive Student Alliance at UTK (then known as the Alliance for Hope) along with some UTK faculty and community allies (particularly the labor-community group Jobs with Justice and the Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network) began planning a “living wage campaign” for UT workers. 

A similar campaign was happening for Knoxville city employees, and many felt that University of Tennessee employees would benefit from a similar plan. An organization of campus staff called Campus Workers for a Living Wage formed so workers themselves could lead the struggle. Ultimately, CWLW became the United Campus Workers, an independent union of university staff employees.

In the past 10 years, UCW has affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, grown into an organization of over 1,900 higher education staff and faculty at Tennessee Board of Regents, Locally Governed Institutions (LGIs, or formerly TBR 4-year universities), and University of Tennessee schools, and won numerous victories in the everyday lives of the folks that keep Tennessee’s public institutions of higher education running.

1999 - Early History of the UT Living Wage Campaign and the Origins of UCW

  • Spring: Planning committee forms to plan March 2000 teach-in and bring nationally recognized activists and intellectuals to educate the university community about labor and human rights.
  • Summer: Several Progressive Student Alliance members attend the AFL-CIO’s “Union Summer” program, which gives student activists hands-on training in grassroots organizing and building worker organizations.
  • Fall: Committee forms to study the wage structure at UT and determine how many employees fall below the Living Wage threshold. Led by UTK Religious Studies Professor David Linge and UTK Social Work student Kristi Disney, researchers spend the next several months putting together this report. 


2000 - Living Wage Campaign Kicks Off, Campus Workers Form Union

  • February 2000: An ad hoc group, the UT Faculty and Staff Committee for Labor and Human Rights, sends a letter to UT President Wade Gilley requesting he implement a Living Wage for UT’s workers. The president’s office does not respond.
  • March 3, 2000: The “Labor Rights as Human Rights at Home and Abroad” teach-in kicks off with a rally of close to 500 students, staff, faculty, and community supporters, led by AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka. It starts at the University Center Plaza and ends with a march to Andy Holt Tower, where a delegation attempts to meet with UT President Gilley. The group meets with UT Vice President Phil Scheurer, who commits to setting up meetings with the group in the future.



2000 History continued

  • The 2000 living wage study is released, which reveals that 68% of UTK's hourly employees make less than a living wage of $9.50 with benefits.
  • Shortly after the release of the 2000 Wage Study, Campus Workers for a Living Wage (CWLW) forms. The group’s first leaders are Sandy Hicks and Ernestine Robinson, workers in the UTK Department of Housing.
  • June: After months of pressure UT agrees to provide housekeepers and building maintenance workers with free hepatitis B vaccines. CWLW defies nay-sayers and shows that collective action brings change. Efforts of CWLW and the Living Wage Campaign win 4.75% pay raise, with 12% for the lowest paid employees.  
  • Late Summer through December- CWLW activists turn their attention to stopping the practice of forced overtime in the UTK department of housing.
  • October 20, 2000- Ernestine Robinson addressed the UT Board of Trustees about the need for a living wage.
  • Late October, 2000-  CWLW votes to become an independent union and changes its name to United Campus Workers (UCW).
  • December 2000- UCW leads a march of students, workers, and community allies from the UTK law school to UT's Presidential court, protesting the policy of forced overtime in housing.


2001 - Organizing Continues, UCW Wins Anti-Privitization and Pay Victories

  • Spring: UCW, working with students and community allies, defeats plans to privatize the UTK Department of Housing.
  • Summer: After stopping the threat of out-sourcing housing workers, UCW activists turn their attention to stopping the practice of forced overtime during summer months in the Department of Housing. Union pressure wins a new overtime policy where housekeepers can individually choose how much overtime they are willing to work.
  • Due to organizing efforts UT employees receive a 4% raise, with the lowest paid workers receiving 5.3%, as the efforts of UCW’s push for a Living Wage on campus continue to gain ground. 


2002 - Justice for Van Drivers, Back Pay after Furlough

  • Summer: UCW wins 8-month transfer period for laid-off UTK van drivers and dispatchers after the administration privatizes campus van service.
  • July 5: After a state government shut down and week-long furlough of all “non-essential” employees, UCW brings strong pressure to bear on UT President Shumaker and wins back pay for UT employees.


2003 - UCW Joins Communications Workers of America

  • United Campus Workers affiliates with the 750,000 member Communications Workers of America, officially becoming UCW-CWA Local 3865.


2004 – “UT Workers Need a Raise,” Faculty Activism Heats up with UCW-CWA Chapter at UT Chattanooga and Lecturers Caucus

  • UCW-CWA launches “UT Workers Need a Raise” campaign demanding flat dollar pay raises for all UT employees including part time lecturers.
  • Spring: Faculty from UT Chattanooga contact United Campus Workers about organizing. After several meetings, the independent faculty group forms the UTC chapter of United Campus Workers, led by Dr. Shela Van Ness, Sociology; Dr. Pedro Campa, Languages; and Dr. Fritz Efaw, Economics.
  • Summer: UCW-CWA’s Lecturers Caucus, with leadership from Elizabeth Gentry (Lecturer in English, UTK) and Pamela Schoenewaldt (Lecturer in English, UTK) wins the inclusion of part-time lecturers in the state mandated 3% across-the-board raise.
  • Summer: Pressure on administrators from UCW-CWA and the Living Wage Campaigns continues to address persistent poverty wages throughout the UT system. As a result of the union’s “UT Workers Need a Raise” campaign all UT staff receive a minimum $750 raise or 3%, whichever is greater.


2005 - Union Gets Active in State Capitol

  • UCW introduces two bills in the Tennessee state legislature: one to give a $1200 pay raise to all Tennessee higher education employees and one to allow public employees in Tennessee the ability to pay dues through payroll deduction to the union of their choice. The bills fail to pass, but they push the union’s agenda in Nashville and are a major historic event, as it was the first time university employees in Tennessee had introduced a bill for pay raises.
  • UT Administration forces a “merit pay first and only” scheme for UT faculty through the legislature. This plan grew out of UT’s new president John Petersen’s belief that cost of living raises should be replaced by so-called “pay for performance,” despite wide-spread criticism stemming from a lack of clear evaluative standards, lack of transparency, and widespread concerns about favoritism. This scheme split funds allocated by the Legislature into a 1.5% across-the-board raise and 1.5% pool to be used for so-called “merit” pay.
  • UCW’s efforts in Nashville result including the first legislated flat-dollar minimum raise, or “floor,” in the Appropriations Bill. All UT staff employees receive a raise of 3% or $750 - whichever is greater. Additionally, due to UCW-CWA’s efforts all higher education employees receive raises on par with other state employees!


2006 - Union Confronts Bad Merit Pay Program, Membership Continues to Grow

  • Summer: The state legislature passes a budget with a two-tier pay raise: 3% and compression pay monies for state agency employees but only a 2% pay raise for workers at the state’s higher education institutions.
  • The pay situation for faculty worsens further as the General Assembly again allows UT President Petersen to split the funded 2% pay increase into a 1% across-the-board raise and a 1% “merit” pool for UT faculty.
  • UCW-CWA’s legislative work ensures that once again a flat dollar minimum raise is included in the budget for low-paid UT staff. The tireless work of UCW-CWA members raises the floor increase to under $30,000 a year, up from the previous level of only less than $25,000, significantly increasing the number of workers who receive higher pay raises.


2007 - UCW-CWA Wins Major Pay Victories for Faculty and Staff, Launches the Campaign for UT’s Working Families

  • UCW, especially the faculty of our UT Chattanooga chapter, heavily lobbies the state legislature, demanding that adequate cost of living raises MUST be given first before any so-called “merit raises.” The union succeeds in reversing the Petersen pay plan, and all faculty receive the 3% across the board pay raise. This victory would not have happened without UCW advocacy in Nashville.
  • After 2006’s two-tier raise, UCW-CWA lobbying efforts win higher education employees the same pay raise as other state workers. At UT the 3% pay raise includes the largest minimum raise in recent memory - 3% or $900, whichever is greater. 
  • Fall: UCW-CWA launches the 2008 Campaign for UT’s Working Families. This campaign puts forward calls for across-the-board cost of living raises tied to the consumer price index, compression pay, and overtime pay for more than 110 laborers at the UT Institute of Agriculture. These workers were denied overtime pay because of a loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act that exempted farm workers from overtime pay at time and a half. UCW, led by union leaders Dean Jenkins and Bobby Cook, both employed by the UT Institute of Agriculture, and with the support of State Representative Harry Tindell, State Senator Tim Burchett, and other allies made the case for changing this unfair situation directly to Vice President Joseph A. DiPietro in early November.


2008 - Support Tennessee’s Economy–Save Higher Education!

  • January: UCW-CWA achieves a truly historic victory, when on January 4, 2008 UT officially announced that effective January 7 all agricultural production workers would have a 40 hour work week and overtime pay. Additionally, “no one’s biweekly, monthly, or annual income compensation will be reduced.” This reverses decades of denying these workers overtime pay on the basis of a discreditable legal loophole to US wage and hour law. It is also the first victory for The 2008 Campaign for UT’s Working Families.
  • Spring: Employees at UT Martin in northwest Tennessee begin organizing with UCW-CWA to win respect, fair pay and a voice at work!
  • UCW-CWA’s efforts in the legislature win a one-time $400 bonus for all higher education employees with at least three years of service.Fall: Facing massive budget cuts to higher education across the state, UCW-CWA launches the campaign to “Support Tennessee’s Economy–Save Higher Education!”
  • October 22, 2008: UCW-CWA, working with student organizations, hosts a rally of more than 400 people on the UT Knoxville campus to defend public higher education funding. Media from across the state cover the event. We help focus public attention to the crisis our state universities and colleges faces.
  • Winter: UCW-CWA begins outreach to newly elected President Obama and the United States Congress to see that funding for public education is protected during the economic crisis.


2009 - Union Membership Grows at Tennessee Board of Regent Schools, Campaign to Save Higher Education Continues

  • Employees at the University of Memphis and UT Health Science Center in Memphis establish organizing committees and begin building UCW-CWA chapters at their workplaces.
  • January, 28, 2009: UCW-CWA holds another successful rally of hundreds of staff, faculty and students to defend higher education funding, and see the passage of the America Recovery and Reinvestment Act including much needed federal stimulus monies to support higher education budgets.
  • CWA President Larry Cohen meets with President Obama to lobby directly for passage of the Economic Stimulus with funds for public higher education, the Employee Free Choice Act and other pro-worker policies. Thousands of CWA Public Sector workers from across the country launch a lobbying blitz on Congress to see funds included in the economic stimulus to help states avoid layoffs and benefit cuts due to revenue shortfalls.
  • February: UCW-CWA participates with the state-wide Coalition to Save Our Schools in planning a rally to protect higher education funding. Through this coalition work, hundreds of students, community allies, and UCW-CWA and other unions in the Tennessee AFL-CIO host a prominent march and rally coinciding with Governor Phil Bredesen’s State of the State address. Funding for Higher Education is front-and-center on the editorial pages of Tennessee newspapers and in lead stories on nightly television news reports.
  • Grassroots pressure lead by national labor movement, including UCW-CWA’s lobbying efforts at the Federal level, helps to secure the inclusion of the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund in the Economic Stimulus package passed by Congress. Because of these funds higher education in Tennessee is guaranteed $470 million in federal funding over the next two years.
  • Early Spring: Faculty and staff at Middle Tennessee State University contact UCW-CWA about starting an organizing campaign. UCW-CWA’s membership continues to rapidly expand at Tennessee Board of Regents schools.
  • Summer: UCW-CWA successfully lobbies UT’s office of Human Resources and senior administration to provide assistance to employees facing an audit of insurance coverage for dependants. For the first time, UT administrators meet with a UCW officer as an officer rather than as a “concerned individual employee not representing any organization.”
  • The union’s campaign to avert budget cuts, prevent layoffs, and save public higher education continues.
  • December: Union membership surpasses 1,000 state-wide!


2010 - UCW-CWA fights against layoffs, wage cuts, and program closures

  • January: UCW-CWA celebrates two milestones--a decade of organizing for social and economic justice on campus and reaching representation of over 1,000 campus workers--with a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Banquet. This banquet was a huge success and becomes a yearly tradition.
  • April: Organizing drive begins on Pellissippi State Technical Community College campuses. 
  • UCW-CWA defeats a proposed 5% wage cut.
  • October: UCW-CWA convenes its first state-wide conference to plan a state-wide strategy for 2011!
  • December: Memphis area local hosts its first holiday party and East Tennessee State University organizing begins.


2011- Fights on all fronts continue

  • March: Victory! UT raisies its mimimum starting pay to $8.50/hr.! This is one more step on the path to earning a Living Wage for all campus emplyees!
  • March 15: UCW-CWA organizes hundreds for a state-wide Rally for Good Jobs, Living Wages, and our Public Services on the Hill in Nashville. 
  • Spring: Tennessee Tech workers and students organize to prevent the outsourcing of TTU Custodians. Despite the public outcry, TTU President Bell signs a back-room deal to sell out custodial workers.
  • July: Won first across the board raise in 4 years. For UT employees raise was 3% or $1,000 whichever was greater. For TBR employees the raise was 3% or $750. Higher ed employee raise is nearly double the legislative mandate for all state employees (1.6), includes largest flat dollar minimum ever for UT workers, and in a truly historic victory established the first minimum raise at TBR schools!
  • September: After thousands of higher ed workers signed petitions and interest sheets, hundreds more attended meetings to prioritize issues, UCW’s Statewide Convention adopts a framework for the Campus Workers Bill of Rights!


2012 - United Campus Workers again earns across the board raises with flat dollar minimum and makes change at campuses across Tennessee

  • March 7, 2012: Hundreds of campus workers, fellow union members, students and community allies rally at state Capitol during UCW’s annual lobby day. UCW members lobby for living wages, $1 per hour wage increase, for limits to parking fees on campus and against attacks on state workers and local fair wage laws.
  • May 1, 2012: Tennessee General Assembly adjourned sine die. UCW and allies defeated efforts to repeal local living wage ordinances, outlaw our rights to picket, and other anti-worker legislation. The budget passed includes increases in higher education funding, monies for new capital project and much needed maintenance funds, and a mandated 2.5% pay increase for higher education employees!
  • Early May: After months-long campaign for dignity and respect, the bad manager who had previously harassed dozens of U of M custodial employees is terminated. Campaign had included letter delegations to President Shirley Raines, front-page exposes in the campus newspaper, student protest and rallies, but things really changed as union density in the shop grew above 30%.
  • May 24, 2012: UCW launches online survey of contingent and adjunct working conditions in Tennessee.
  • June: UCW leaders from 5 different TBR campuses meet with Chancellor John Morgan and Vice Chancellor of Business and Finance Dale Sims and discuss pay, working conditions, and our rights to organize (Campus reps from University of Memphis, TSU, MTSU, Pellissippi State and TTU). This meeting comes just weeks after union officials had series of meetings to discuss higher education policy, pay and working conditions with Governor Haslam’s staff, ETSU President Dr. Brian Nolan, and Pellissippi State President Dr. Anthony Wise.
  • July: Campus workers again win across the board pay raises; 2.5% or $1,000 raise is approved by UT Board of Trustees, 2.5% or $750 is approved by the Tennessee Board of Regents. UCW’s raise proposals are explicitly discussed during TBR compensation committee meeting. These raises are another concrete step in the long term fight for living wages on all campuses across Tennessee.
  • After learning that a small number of campus employees have been denied the across-the-board raise, UCW members launch efforts to overturn all raise denials. Efforts working with individual members win employees back their raises.
  • July-August: UCW members turn out and ask questions at Gov. Haslam’s “Post-secondary Education Review Sessions.”