In the eight years that I've been director of Workers Interfaith Network, I've been part of numerous clergy delegations that have attempted to talk to managers and owners about working conditions and problems in the workplaces. In a number of cases, we have managed to talk to a plant manager or similar person. I can think of only one occasion in which a company in a small town, which was notoriously unsafe and discriminatory in their practices, would not allow our delegation to even enter the building.
I certainly expected that when a delegation of clergy joined workers laid off from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) yesterday to talk about the layoffs, that we would be able to speak to someone from the Chancellor's Office. Instead, we were greeted by a security guard and a police officer (we must have looked like an intimidating group!) who would not allow us to enter the lobby because we did not have an appointment. When a representative of the United Campus Workers asked if security could call the Chancellor's office to let them know we were there, because he had already made multiple attempts to make an appointment, the security guard claimed he did not have the phone number of the Chancellor's office. I wonder how we would have contacted them if we had an appointment if he doesn't have the phone number? I guess I am naive, but I expected that a state institution would behave at least as well as the many union-busting private companies I have visited over the years.
The refusal of UTHSC officials to return letters and calls from workers and the union, as well as their refusal to allow us to set foot in the lobby of a state building, are signs of much more serious concerns. Even though UTHSC has received over $30 million in stimulus money from the federal ARRA and state MOE funds, that money has not been used to save jobs. Thirty-three workers were laid off this month, including long-time employees like Michele Burrell, who has posted a you tube video outlining workers' concerns about the way that were laid off, severance, and recall rights.
Two of the laid-off workers I spoke with on Wednesday are single mothers who were making very modest salaries, leaving them totally unprepared for a layoff. Since workers did not get any advanced notice of the layoffs, not even one day, how could they have prepared? One of the women has a disabled son that she does not know how she will care for; the other asked where she could get health insurance after September 30th because there is no possible way she can afford COBRA.
The demographics of who was included in the layoffs is also of concern. While Chancellor Schwab is paid $550,000 a year by UT, many laid off workers were making less than $25,000 annually. When 18 of the laid off workers are African-American women, 10 are white women, and 5 are white men, you have to wonder if gender and racial discrimination could have been at work in decisions about who would be laid off. Because UTHSC has not disclosed what methods they used to decide on layoffs (such as seniority or performance reviews), there is no way to check for possible discrimination.
What do workers want?
1. UTHSC should use recovery money to stop additional layoffs.
2. Laid off workers should have recall rights for new positions that come open, and/or placement into currently open UTHSC positions.
3. Workers deserve severance pay that is equal to that of other laid off state of Tennessee workers. UTHSC workers received less than six weeks severance (with no notice of layoffs) while other state and higher education workers have received up to four months of salary and up to two years of tuition assistance. Because the current severance package only goes through September 30th, workers will not be eligible for any possible bonus money the state may give.
4. UTHSC should fully disclose how layoffs were conducted to verify there weren't irregularities or discrimination based on race, gender, or age.
You can support laid off UTHSC workers by calling Chancellor Schwab's office at 901-448-4796. Urge him to use federal stimulus money to save workers' jobs, and call on him to meet with laid off workers to hear their concerns. You can also send an email on United Campus Workers' website.UT needs to know that the Memphis community wants stimulus funds to be used for their proper purpose: preventing layoffs in a time where it will be incredibly difficult for workers to find new jobs.