In recent years, U.S. labor organizing has turned an exciting corner. National headlines have burst with workers putting pressure on far corners of the economy for fair wages and safe, secure jobs — from employees at major logistics corporations like Amazon and UPS to auto workers and Hollywood writers and actors. The world of higher education is no different, and colleges and universities across the country have seen their own wave of new labor campaigns. Last fall, for example, 48,000 workers at the University of California went on a 40-day strike — the largest higher ed strike in U.S. history. Meanwhile, graduate students have voted to unionize at a number of large campuses since 2021, including Duke, Stanford, Northwestern and MIT.
The biggest union stories right now tend to focus on three foundational tactics in labor organizing: election campaigns through the National Labor Relations Board, contract negotiations and strikes. These actions are often the most visible parts of organized labor, but they’re just part of a wide range of approaches that unions use to make concrete changes in the workplace and build power among their members.
Enter United Campus Workers, or UCW, a Tennessee union that represents more than 2,000 higher education employees across the state. Although Tennessee is a so-called “right to work” state — and most public workers don’t have collective bargaining rights — UCW has racked up a number of major victories on its member campuses. In 2017, the union stopped an outsourcing plan proposed by former Gov. Bill Haslam, saving 10,000 state jobs from becoming privatized. More recently, members have successfully fought for a $15 minimum wage at schools like the University of Memphis and University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
In a region where the cards are firmly stacked against workers’ rights, UCW’s organizing model focuses on cross-job solidarity, legislative connections and finding creative ways to build pressure. It’s this model that inspired me to join UCW as a graduate student in 2019, and to eventually spend two years on staff as a field organizer.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of UCW’s official founding, when it became affiliated with the Communications Workers of America. Ahead of UCW’s annual statewide convention in September, I spoke with Anne Langendorfer, a senior lecturer at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, or UTK, who serves as the union’s current president. We reflected on UCW’s beginnings, how the union builds power in its chapters, and why its approach stands out during a critical moment for labor across the country.
This fall, United Campus Workers is celebrating 20 years of organizing on college campuses in Tennessee. Talk me through what those very first efforts looked like.
There were undergrad students who were very concerned about the low wages of staff at UTK. They were enraged at the way the university treated people who worked as custodians, who worked in facilities — these were people [the students] worked with, because they, too, worked in the dorms and libraries. Some of the early concerns included pay, and also encountering dangerous things like needles in the trash. I’ve also heard that there was some anger around having to purchase their own uniforms and stuff like that. So they had these job risks that they were not being protected from, and a lot of costs being passed off to low-wage workers who were doing essential, front line work at the university.
As this persisted, the group became more organized: students working with staff and faculty. And they got so organized that they finally got in touch with some unions, and the union they decided to affiliate with was the Communications Workers of America, or CWA.
Part of the reason they did that is because CWA already had public-sector workers as part of their union. CWA had organized Texas state employees in TSEU — which is the Texas State Employee Union — and it [includes] higher ed. They had a model of organizing that they thought they could expand and develop. So those students at UTK and their coworkers formed this wall-to-wall union with organizing support from CWA, and they affiliated as a local in 2003.
It’s common for faculty, grad students and maintenance or skilled trades workers to have separate unions on large campuses. But UCW is a “wall-to-wall” union, meaning that different job categories all join the same local. What are some advantages and challenges of that model?
The reason I love wall-to-wall is that higher education requires all of these different kinds of workers to function. And it’s much better for us to work together to create one industry where we acknowledge our interdependence. So the idea that you’d have a lot in common with your coworkers is a very practical thing.
Of course, we do very different jobs, and I think that this can cause tension. In our culture, some jobs are paid more than others, and it has a lot to do with things like prestige and power, and the idea that certain kinds of people get to do certain kinds of jobs. You enter into a university where hierarchy is very important, and the people who are paid the most are administrators, and the people paid the least are doing at least some manual labor, or labor that’s tedious to many. Higher ed is very siloed — everybody’s kind of in their own little world. You could work on the same campus and not ever look up and see what other people are doing.
How could it be that a student worker on the UT campus who makes $11 an hour has something in common with a mom who’s cleaning buildings full-time for $15 an hour and at least has benefits? Could they also have something with a graduate student who’s working in a lab or teaching? And would they have something in common with the tenured professors who are getting paid more to run labs and research projects, that don’t generally see themselves as workers? What would be the benefit? The benefit would be us seeing each other as neighbors, fellow citizens, engaged by the state of Tennessee in one industry. It allows for us to have a much more sophisticated understanding of how we’re all together in this, and it allows for us to argue for things that are actually transformative for us and for our whole state.
An example of that [was] the attempt to outsource public jobs to a private company. Our union won that because we were wall-to-wall. If it had only been the facilities workers, or if it had only been professors, I don’t think it would have worked the same way. We needed to be in one union to strategize, to stand together and to refuse to accept that any of us would lose out on working good state jobs for the people of Tennessee. We depended on each other.
I joined the union when that was going on, and I realized that this was so smart. Across job categories, you can take a much bigger view of the ecosystem. Everybody’s a part of this community, and if you think that only your needs matter, you might miss out on how many different ways this affects people. And if any one of them is hurting or mistreated, it will come to get you. That’s an old organizing idea: that I’m not free until you’re free, my working conditions are your working conditions. It’s a deeply civic good that we’re building when we build a union that’s wall-to-wall, because it says that everybody in our communities benefits when we have a strong, safe, fair workplace, where we get a fair voice in our work. It’s good for all Tennesseeans. So I think it’s always going to be an asset for UCW.
So much of this current wave of labor struggles has focused on collective bargaining, NLRB elections and strikes. In Tennessee, public sector workers don’t have the right to strike, and almost none have collective bargaining rights. What are some basic strategies to win labor demands when you don’t have those tools at your disposal?
When people think about labor unions, of course we think about the ability to bargain a contract, the ability to strike. And it’s right to think about that. Whether you’re in a private company or a public-sector job, what you have is your labor and your ability to withhold your labor and shape what that labor looks like.
I know that there are other UCWs who will win the right to bargain, [and] we’ll keep working for that. In the meantime, a contract and the right to strike aren’t everything. It goes back to one of the things I know that’s fundamentally true, because I’ve seen it with the material wins that we’ve made real for myself and my coworkers. When one worker stands with another worker and says to their bosses, “This is what we need,” they are more likely to get it than if they go by themselves.
I think that people underestimate the role of organizing people through petitions, through assembly, through speaking with each other in public. That sounds simple, but it’s very powerful. When we know somebody has the power to change our workplace and they won’t do it, we’re so much more powerful together. That allows us to then try things that I’d never try on my own, to go to our state legislature and talk to our legislators, to pass overdressed lobbyists in the hallway and know that our fellow Tennesseans are not being represented. Lobby Day, that’s one powerful thing that we do every year. And definitely showing up for each other not just at work, but out in our communities. You learn strategies that you can pull into many other parts of your lives, too.
Since UCW TN was founded, a number of other UCW locals have started across the South and West. Why do you think UCW’s model has been so adaptable in places where the organizing landscape might look very different?
I think they’re not that different. Of course, Virginia has a different political landscape from Georgia or Kentucky or Tennessee or Mississippi. [But] even as state politics and institutions differ — UT-Knoxville is very different than UT-Martin, the University of Memphis, or any one of our community colleges — we all work in an industry that has crucial similarities: people engaged in knowledge production, knowledge building, knowledge conservation and knowledge sharing.
Everybody who’s on a college campus needs the right to pursue the truth, and to do it free of political interference. That political interference has become more and more of a problem for many universities, and that means that all the workers on those campuses are affected. I think it’s a really cool and interesting time to think about how that might be powerful in many different states.
UCW members have supported political struggles around gun reform, securing abortion rights and progressive candidates for office across the state. How do you think organized labor can best support these related organizing efforts?
I think workers’ rights are obviously and necessarily in alignment with civil rights. The rights we need in order to be human beings, we don’t leave those at the door when we’re at work. They necessarily feed each other.
I can’t leave my house and drive down the street past my neighbors who slept out in the open, and not think about them as I drive onto campus, and know that many of my students are also struggling to find a place where they can sleep at night, still attend to their classwork and have enough food. We have a food pantry on campus, and staff and graduate students are some of the most frequent users. For me, those rights are connected.
And certainly, you see some of these big issues in Tennessee because we’re living in a deeply anti-democratic state. Our legislators are not able to speak in the state House. I think this year was one of the most galvanizing years in my life around a real understanding that we don’t have a democracy — the people’s work is not being done on the state House floor.
During UCW’s statewide convention, members reflect on recent victories and set priorities for the coming years. What are some big cross-campus issues that UCW members are focused on for the future?
One of our defining fights is the fight to secure a living wage for all campus workers. Of course, we’re going to approach that slightly differently from campus to campus, but overall, we want to fight for $25 an hour by 2025.
An uncontrolled housing market paired with rising costs have made it much more expensive to live in Tennessee. Whereas for many years, people have promoted Tennessee as a cheap place to live, it has become increasingly unaffordable for people who are already living here. And so state workers have never been able to keep up.
You’ll hear legislators say things like, “Well, we put into the budget a five percent raise pool.” What they don’t tell most Tennesseans is that they don’t fully fund that pay raise. So they then tell the institutions, “You need to use your funds to pay the rest of it” — and the thing is, not all the institutions have the money to do that. So institutions that have been struggling, especially community colleges, are not always able to fund that whole pool. And that means that workers don’t get that five percent raise.
There have been no cost of living adjustments for years now. Despite sitting on a hoard of our tax dollars, [the state of Tennessee] will not pay state workers a wage that keeps up with inflation — let alone compensates for loyalty, longevity, building new skills — to maintain and promote one of the most important revenue-generating industries in the state. We make the state of Tennessee millions of dollars, and that trickles out into our communities in untold ways.
We still have many campuses across the state that refuse to pay $15 an hour to their workers. And $15 an hour is a poverty wage. I don’t understand a state that would want any of its citizens to live in poverty. So we have a very aggressive and important target, because we can’t wait.
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