Union fights campus privatization to protect its benefits

A union representing Tennessee college workers is up in arms over a proposal to outsource facilities management on public college campuses, fearing that allowing private sector competition will cost union members their jobs or benefits.

The Tennessean reports that the United Campus Workers union is taking a public stand against the plan advanced by Gov. Bill Haslam (R), fearing that allowing private companies to perform maintenance duties “would lead to lost jobs or slashed pay for current employees and a lower quality service on campuses.”

The union released around 400 comments Monday addressing the plan, nearly all of them critical.

"The work is already being done well by Tennessee's hardworking public servants—whose jobs are on the line with Haslam's proposal," said a comment left by Donna Smith. "We know how to do the job best and most efficiently, and we're the ones most committed to the needs of our state."

Michelle Martin, spokesperson for the state office charged with reviewing the outsourcing proposal, assured union members that her office would "continue to state and restate" that any eventual outsourcing deal would prioritize the inclusion of provisions to protect union jobs.

Martin added that a third-party review is currently being conducted to evaluate potential cost savings while the state searches for private sector partners, and said a final report is expected by November.

She also noted that individual colleges will have the opportunity to opt in or out of the arrangement once those partners have proposed their plans in February 2017.

According to The Tennessean, an internal report released in March suggested that privatizing the management of residence halls, student centers, and other properties within the state could save $36 million per year, prompting Haslam to consider the idea for colleges, prisons, and state parks, though he has assured current state workers that the savings will be realized “without layoffs or cuts to pay benefits.”

Haslam’s proposal has been heavily criticized by Democratic lawmakers, who call for more legislative oversight of similar state contracts.

State Sen. Lee Harris, for instance, cited the state's error-plagued $108 million contract for online testing in public schools as an example of the need for such oversight. State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, also a Democrat, was even harsher in his assessment, asserting that "Gov. Haslam and his administration is [sic] willing to sell anything that isn't nailed down in state government," adding that he questions Haslam’s “priorities” and “motives.”

Campus Reform reached out to the United Campus Workers for comment, but had not received a response by press time.

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