The union is coming! The union is coming!
Sorry, I couldn’t resist, but in reality, I pushed three buttons there, all of which are wrong: Paul Revere never said the British were coming, we’re better off in the Union, and little-u unions aren’t scary. In regards to that last one, though, in my younger years, I felt this enormous dread about a union. They were ambiguously bad, but I wasn’t sure why. Such is the norm growing up in a Right-to-Work State, y’all.
No doubt when I write that University of Georgia staff and faculty are forming a union, some folks are going to reach for their pitchforks. Hold off a minute and let’s explore why this is happening.
Last year, the University System of Georgia decided to implement the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) revisions developed under the Obama Administration, no doubt trying to be proactive and anticipating a Clinton Administration that would follow through with implementation. Two things of note: We don’t have a Clinton Administration, and the payroll system we’re implementing USG-wide was wasn’t readily capable of a task like that.
What the changes to the law were to do was make anyone earning $47,476 subject to overtime laws. In USG institutions, that is mostly (but not exclusively) administrative, clerical, custodial, and maintenance staff. The state of Georgia requires anyone eligible for overtime pay to be paid biweekly, but the USG does not have (and did not create) a biweekly classification. So, the plan was to shift every employee university system-wide who earned $47,475.99 or less from salaried to hourly compensation. They decided to start with a group of schools to pilot the program (Cohort 1), which for full disclosure included Georgia College where I work. It also included UGA, Georgia Gwinnett, Columbus State, Valdosta State, Georgia Southwestern, and the USG office.
The transition left much to be desired. HR departments ended up having an eight day delay in processing newly-classified hourly employees, but they didn’t pay them immediately for the gap. Last December, some of the lowest-paid employees in the USG were uncompensated for eight days of work. Most of them still haven’t seen reimbursement, but they are told they will be repaid when they retire, move into a salaried position again, or leave the university. There are anecdotes told on the Cohort 1 campuses about compensation not being paid out when affected employees have left jobs this past year, which digs at morale, as it suggests that thousands of people may not ever get reimbursed for those eight days.
It’s one thing to be furloughed; it’s another entirely to work for an agreed amount and then be told you randomly volunteered for over a week after the fact. In December. Right before Christmas.
Bah humbug, indeed.
That was the point where Joseph Fu, Professor of Mathematics at UGA, decided to stand up for his colleagues. He happened to meet a United Campus Workers representative at an event on campus, and he got the ball rolling from there to form UCW-GA. Apparently, 60-ish employees have sent cards to UGA President Jere Morehead, outlining the new union’s near-term goals, which include a raise for all staff making less than the median salary at the university and a sliding parking fee dependent on an employee’s salary. UCW-GA has also developed a Campus Workers’ Bill of Rights, which is available on their website.
In case you’re still searching for that pitchfork, someone else is already on it. The Red & Black — of all places — received an anonymous letter warning about the ills of UCW-GA:
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.”
However, Fu and others have said the sentiments of the manifesto do not match the goals of UCW-GA and that they have outlined their goals in the postcards and on their website.
What does it even mean to have a union in a state like Georgia? Right-to-Work laws like the one we have prevent state employees from striking, collective bargaining, compelling employees to join, or even holding union elections. Fu, who has the benefit of being tenured while taking up this charge, says that the union plans to use publicity to advocate for its goals, hopefully convincing the public to push UGA and the Board of Regents for desired changes.
The Red & Black interviewed Weyman Johnson, Professor of Law, who pointed out that the National Labor Relations Act doesn’t cover state employees, so even if Georgia didn’t have a Right-to-Work law, USG employees still wouldn’t have union protections under federal law. True, but Professor Johnson didn’t mention that federal employees used to not be covered by NLRA, either. President Nixon changed that with an Executive Order, which was drafted by a Georgian (and a Republican) W.J. “Bill” Usery, Jr., then-Assistant Secretary of Labor.
I don’t exactly see Alex Acosta pushing for NLRA to cover state employees, but stranger things have happened. And who’s to say the next Secretary of Labor won’t? What I hope is that UCW-GA is successful in its quest to push for fair compensation for UGA and the other Cohort 1 institutions’ staffs, particularly in regards to their missing pay. They totally deserve it.
A final note: If you’re wondering if the USG decided to change course about the FLSA shift to hourly compensation, the answer is no. Cohort 2 institutions (Augusta University, Georgia Southern, ABAC, Fort Valley, Gordon State, and Middle Georgia) are getting ready in the next three weeks to see the same shift that Cohort 1 experienced last year. I sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, hope that the transition is smoother this time around.