President Jere Morehead’s mailbox was more full than usual last week, crowded with dozens of copies of the same postcard, each bearing the signature of a different university employee.
The postcards read, “I am writing to ask that you commit to making fair compensation for staff and faculty the top University of Georgia priority in 2018. I am encouraged by recent USG salary adjustment pools … however, current policy does not address the severe compensation challenges we face, especially for staff.”
The postcards also include a series of requested improvements including giving all employees making less than the median salary at UGA a raise and replacing the current flat rate parking fees with a sliding scale.
This is one of the first moves made by a newly formed union at UGA, which, according to union leader and UGA mathematics professor Joseph Fu, will advocate for employees.
One year later
The first plans for this union began in fall 2016. However, tensions between UGA and some of its employees had been rising since before the start of that semester.
What many employees saw as a breaking point was the university’s implementation of the Fair Labor Standards Act in December of 2016.
In compliance with FLSA, more than 3,000 of UGA’s 10,665 employees, mainly consisting of technical, clerical, and maintenance workers, were transitioned over to bi-weekly pay.
Due to problems that arose because of conflicting Georgia and University System of Georgia policies, the pay schedule change for these 3,000 employees caused a week’s delay in pay right around the holiday season.
Employees said they have not been paid back for this week, but Greg Trevor, UGA executive director of media communications, said all employees have since received full compensation for their work.
On Sept. 19, 2016, the Economic Justice Coalition held a meeting to discuss how the university was reclassifying employees to prepare for the implementation of FLSA.
Ricky Roberts, a member of the Economic Justice Coalition, said a United Campus Workers of Tennessee (UCW-CWA) representative spoke at the meeting about possibly organizing workers to fight for fair wages on UGA’s campus.
In response to the university’s implementation of this federal act, Fu and several university employees, ranging from tenured professors to office workers, created the United Campus Workers of Georgia one year later because some employees claim the university still hasn’t directly reimbursed paychecks to employees.
“The union is so important because it will give a voice to all the people who are afraid of retaliation and speaking up about injustices happening on campus,” Roberts said.
The union will advocate for fair salaries and better working conditions on campus, Fu said. It is in the process of being chartered by the Tennessee union and has a total of 66 members.
Facing an uphill climb
Others are not convinced the union’s efforts are in the best interest of UGA employees.
On Friday, Nov. 3, The Red & Black received a letter from an unknown individual labeling the union as “a hate group.”
The three-sentence letter included in the envelope read, “Some outsiders have formed a union here at UGA. They’re a hate group, as their ‘manifesto’ makes clear. I’m not sure what [The Red & Black] can do with this but I felt called to alert you.”
Inside was a single typed page titled, “UCW-GA: A Manifesto.”
The document lists the alleged goals of the United Campus Workers of Georgia such as equal benefits for all university employees, raising the campus minimum wage to $15 an hour, ending campus carry and formally denouncing the Board of Regents as a “cabal of unrepentant segregationists.”
Of the union members interviewed by The Red & Black, all were overwhelmingly opposed to the goals stated in the document.
Fu said the document was written by a small group of young, union members in spring 2017, but it does not reflect the views of the union and UCW-GA does not plan on voting or accepting the “Manifesto.”
“Young people get excited, especially people with interesting political ideas. They get excited and write stuff like this,” Fu said. “I hope that enthusiastic, young students stay a part of our group, like the ones that wrote this document, so they can stay and continue to learn. But, this is in no way a position of our group.”
In addition to the “manifesto,” the union will also face legal challenges before it can command the kind of power traditionally associated with unionized workers.
Georgia is a Right-to-Work state, meaning that the new union would not be able to form any sort of official agreement with the university.
It could not require membership or the payment of dues, which have been important pillars of union power in the past.
UGA School of Law professor Weyman Johnson, who has practiced labor relations law in Georgia for nearly 30 years, said Georgia’s Right-to-Work laws will not even be the “main obstacle” for United Campus Workers of Georgia. Instead they may find themselves fighting for rights other unions have by default because of a specific provision in the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act.
“The main obstacle they would face is the National Labor Relations Acts which governs union organizing relationships between management and unions in the private sector [and] expressly excludes public employees coverage,” Johnson said. “Employees of the university, because it’s a public university run by the state board of regents, wouldn’t be protected by the National Labor Relations Act.”
In lieu of these federal regulations, many states have their own laws in place to require public institutions or employers to cooperate with unions, but Georgia is not one of those states. In fact, Georgia law also prohibits state employees from striking.
Still, Johnson said this doesn’t necessarily mean the union has no options.
“Even though the union cannot compel the university or have a collective bargaining relation about it, [the union] can try to advocate for employees, which is what it looks like they’re doing here,” Johnson said.