STREET TALK

Elizabeth Gentry, president of United Campus Workers at UT

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Last year when we all got raises, the university ended up adding to the pool of money for those making $25,000 and below; that's something they hadn't done before. We weren't the only group calling attention to the low wages of university employees, but we were part of that, and I really claim that extra money for those at the lower end of the pay scale as a victory for the union. And this spring, we had two bills introduced into the House and Senate. One asked for a payroll deduction, where union members' dues would be deducted automatically from their paychecks. The other bill called for the $1,200 flat raise across the board for every employee.

Q:  How did you get involved with

I did a masters degree at UT, and when I finished I became a lecturer in the English department. I started teaching full time in 2001, which is four classes per semester for a lecturer, and I did that for a year and was really exhausted at the end of the year. I had two classes to prepare for, a literature class and a composition class, two classes of each of those subjects, and I was working an average of a good 60 or 70 hours a workweek. So I was becoming more aware of labor concerns at that time, [when] we were making less in the English department than we are now. I was angry, and I was sick. I had a health problem that turned into a chronic thing because I was stressed out about my job. I didn't know anything about the labor organization on campus, and it wasn't until fall of 2003 that I heard about United Campus Workers.

 

Q:  Why is there a stigma associated with unions?

It seems like it's more in the Southeast than in other places. Certainly as we're trying to organize, people are resistant. I think this is because they think that unions cause trouble, which I want to make clear is not the case at all. I see unions as acknowledging the power structure that already exists; that structure is either there and you can ignore it and suffer the consequences as a worker, or it's there and you acknowledge it and respond to it and engage the power structure. Every workplace needs some sort of accountability that is real, some way that workers can say more than just, "We're not happy with this, and maybe management will listen or maybe they won't." I want to have a structured form of accountability where workers can unite around issues that concern them. I don't see it as we're just sitting around complaining. The workers really suffer, they feel disrespected, or they know that they're not making enough money to live off of, and they want to know that there's a way to make changes. And ultimately, if UT pays better wages, it would impact the local economy in a positive way.

 

Q:  What projects is the union undertaking right now?

Last year when we all got raises, the university ended up adding to the pool of money for those making $25,000 and below; that's something they hadn't done before. We weren't the only group calling attention to the low wages of university employees, but we were part of that, and I really claim that extra money for those at the lower end of the pay scale as a victory for the union. And this spring, we had two bills introduced into the House and Senate. One asked for a payroll deduction, where union members' dues would be deducted automatically from their paychecks. The other bill called for the $1,200 flat raise across the board for every employee.

 

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