Turf Wars

Mike Gross, executive vice president of the Texas State Employees Union (T.S.E.U.), gestured to a wooden chair and made a joke, as Jim Branson, a T.S.E.U. organizer at UT-Austin and veteran of battles by steel workers and coal miners, sat down beside him. Around them, unsmiling graduate students – many of them in the history program and all of them union members – filed warily into the narrow conference room. “This was the last good institutional chair ever built,” Gross said, as the students dropped their backpacks. “They stopped making them in 1973.” But the joke fell flat. It was midway through an angry meeting between Gross, Branson, and the two dozen graduate students (some of whom hadn’t been born by 1973), and moving from a classroom to a faculty lounge broke the tension, briefly. But no one was in the mood to laugh. Five minutes after the chair joke, one graduate student was challenging Branson, a heavy-set man with flashing eyes, to a fight.

The students were present on behalf of a sizeable number of union members who support the University Staff Association (U.S.A.), a relatively new campus-wide organization that works – independently of the union – to improve pay and working conditions for university staff, a category that includes a broad range of employees, from janitors to graduate student teaching assistants. Brewing tension between the T.S.E.U., which represents the relatively small number of UT employees who are unionized, and the U.S.A. had reached a flashpoint over a controversial letter that T.S.E.U. circulated to its membership. The letter strongly criticized a three-day “sick-out” organized by U.S.A. in early September. The Association, led by rising star organizer Peg Kramer, had called for university staff to catch the “burnt-orange flu,” to protest the administration’s position on grievance procedures, wages, and health insurance. In a recent wage survey, the university fared poorly in comparison with other major universities, and UT has lagged behind private sector pay for years. The starting salary for janitors, groundskeepers, and guards is just $15,204. (The U.S.A. has called for a minimum wage of $9.16 an hour, or about $19,000 per year.) In response to the U.S.A.’s planned work stoppage, UT President Larry Faulkner sent an ominous letter to the entire staff, reminding them that such an action would be illegal, and further, that state law prohibits state employers from negotiating collectively with groups of workers (see sidebar on page 8).

Several years of friction between the U.S.A. and the T.S.E.U. have left each side wishing that the other would just disappear. It’s more than just a verbal scuffle between young academics and battle-scarred organizers, between students of labor history and agents of labor history. U.S.A.’s aggressive organizing and high-profile presence has created a turf war, one that has highlighted a generational struggle in the union movement nationwide. It’s a conflict over tactics and strategy, over old forms of organizing versus new, in a state where public workers do battle without the most crucial weapon of all – collective bargaining. At stake is the loyalty of 14,000 potential union members at UT, and 140,000 university workers across the state. The question is this: On the hardscrabble landscape of labor politics in Texas, who – the union or university workers – is indispensable to whom?

The T.S.E.U. letter called the sick-out a “disaster” and “an irresponsible action” and urged union members to “move forward with the work of organizing and winning.” It also excoriated the leadership of the U.S.A. for attempting a “sensational gimmick to solve the serious problems facing UT employees.” In terms of participation levels, whether or not the sick-out was a disaster depends on whom you ask. The university administration claimed that 26 people weren’t at their posts, while the Daily Texan counted 60. T.S.E.U.’s Gross guessed 300. U.S.A. president Peg Kramer, who is the graduate coordinator in the UT School of Social Work, claimed that between 1,300 and 1,800 people caught the “flu,” while hundreds more attended rallies. Regardless of the numbers, for many on campus the emotional power of the sick-out was as real as it was immeasurable. For the assembled graduate students at this summit meeting, the sick-out was a success. It raised the visibility of worker issues, they argued. They’d used the opportunity to educate their students. And there’d also been the indubitable thrill of illegal action, which injected some much-needed energy and excitement into the three-year-old campaign to improve working conditions and pay at UT.

So in what sense, they wanted to know, was the sick-out a disaster? “It was a hard thing to do, but it was the T.S.E.U.’s obligation to send the letter,” Gross said. “The sick-out was an action based on a low level of organization. It asked people to risk their jobs. … We’re not in the business of leading people over cliffs,” Branson argued. “We’re here to win.” Nearly two hours later, Branson and Gross had both stood their ground, capitulating little and absorbing the students’ salvos with mild detachment. (“The emotion was unusual,” Gross said later. “But not unheard of.”) By the end, manly apologies were swapped, and plans for the future were solidified.

But solidarity? Who knows. There may already be too much water under the bridge. Leaders of both groups admit that a co-sponsored march of university workers on the Capitol in the spring of 1998 was successful. Soon afterward, however, relationships soured. Gross claims that the U.S.A. attempted to take credit for the march, even though it had been organized with union resources. According to Kramer, the relationship was sundered when the U.S.A. decided not to join the T.S.E.U. because the workers felt they weren’t ready to unionize. Other observers say that the falling-out occurred at a state-wide T.S.E.U. meeting in 1998, when union delegates from UT-Austin who were also members of the U.S.A. (there is some overlap between the groups) attempted to push collective bargaining – which would require a major change of heart in the Texas Legislature – onto the T.S.E.U.’s official platform. This much is true: Accusations over who is more undemocratic, more self-aggrandizing, and less organized fly back and forth. The infamous letter was just one sling among so many arrows.

Watching the fray are university workers. “The staff association did some positive things,” said Glenn Worley, a staff member in the library who has been at UT since 1975. A former member of the T.S.E.U. and a current member of the U.S.A., he questioned both the U.S.A.’s negative attitude and the T.S.E.U.’s use of his money. In the end, he said, “I didn’t do the sick-out, because I didn’t feel it was a good idea.” On the other hand, he feels alienated from the union. “The union’s operating as if it’s the Thirties or Forties. They don’t understand what people want. They [workers] get tired of hearing about the evil exploiters of labor. We don’t like to get treated like line workers or agricultural workers.”

The letter, and the sick-out which provoked it, highlight a more fundamental point of contention: Do university workers belong in a state-wide union that also represents parole officers, child welfare workers, and food service workers, employed by some 254 state agencies in all? If so, can the union and its state-wide constituency make room for strategies – such as fighting for collective bargaining rights – that the grad students, the U.S.A., and Peg Kramer hold dear? Kramer maintains, in fact, that the answer is no. Higher education’s varied funding sources and different grievance procedures, health insurance, and retirement system make it unique among state employers. And UT-Austin’s situation is even more exceptional. Workers at the flagship of the UT System have to live in Austin, where the booming economy has drastically increased living costs.

Meanwhile, Gross and Branson hew to the T.S.E.U.’s one-union-fits-all policy, pointing to several victories in the last four legislative sessions that only a statewide union could have achieved. It took the T.S.E.U.’s muscle, for example, to defeat the University of Texas’ attempt to get exemptions from a mandated pay raise for all state workers. “[The UT administration’s] basic philosophy is to keep themselves isolated from the rest of the state so they can have total control. They don’t like a statewide issue,” Gross said. Yet the core issues are fundamentally the same for all state workers, according to Gross – although sometimes the workers themselves don’t see it that way, either. All state workers are underpaid relative to the private sector, for example, but each agency tends to think it’s the worst. “When you first get people together, they think they come from the worst place,” Gross said. That tends to drive workers apart. “When people act individualistically, they can’t gain any kind of power,” Branson added. “The question is, how do you confront the power that is running people’s lives. You don’t do that by splitting into smaller groups.” For university workers to claim to be different from other state workers is elitist, he argued.

Branson also challenged the notion that the T.S.E.U. simply lobbies, a frequent complaint of U.S.A. members. “We do direct action. But we believe in mobilizing people at targets that are going to make some kind of difference.” But Kramer and some graduate students have questioned how the T.S.E.U. makes those kinds of decisions. “How unions in general are run needs to change,” Kramer says. “The leaderships are mostly white males and represent old-time models of organizing people and represent old-time labor issues. What we want to see is leadership that represents the real people, with women, gays, and people of color. We’d like to see progressive issues covered, like child care, collective bargaining, domestic partner benefits, and strike. Not just the usual things.”

Despite their differences, the two sides agree on some things – a distaste for media coverage, for example. “The mass media doesn’t cover labor unions unless it’s a negative story,” Branson said. Both sides have also damaged their credibility in some circles. “There’s no necessary conflict between the T.S.E.U. and the U.S.A.,” said Jack Getman, professor of law at UT-Austin and long-time observer of organized labor. “The sick-out didn’t achieve its goals, but these things are difficult to do. It was a union tactic, and the T.S.E.U. could have helped her with it,” he said. As for the letter, “It seems that going after [Kramer] at this point is questionable. [The TSEU] is going after the wrong enemy. It would be in the interests of both sides if they could work together.”

Tactics and strategy aside, Kramer sees a more fundamental conflict: Both groups are trying to organize the same population. “What it is, is a turf war,” she said. Mike Gross was equally plain: “University workers are a priority for the T.S.E.U.” There are 140,000 of them in Texas – a considerable potential resource for the union, though a largely untapped one. Out of 14,000 employees at UT-Austin, only 700 are union members, and ratios statewide are about the same. Why so few? After all, contrary to popular belief, university workers don’t have the highest turnover among state workers. According to Gross, the Department of Human Services has an annual turnover rate of 20 percent, while the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation records staggering turnover rates, with some individual units ranging as high as 84 percent. According to a House subcommittee report, UT-Austin’s turnover rate is 10 percent, while the average of all UT components is only 15 percent. This makes university workers a relatively large, stable population.

What’s more, their numbers are growing. In 1997, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board predicted that enrollments at Texas colleges and universities will increase by approximately 136,000 students by 2010, all but 10,000 of whom are expected to enroll at public schools. By 2015, the Coordinating Board predicts a total increase of 166,000. In May 2000, the Educational Testing Service reported an even higher figure: an increase of 315,000 by 2015. Either set of numbers points to more faculty, larger facilities, and more staff. The Coordinating Board predicted that the state will need 2,745 more faculty between 1996 and 2010, and that appropriations will have to increase from $2.5 billion to $2.7 billion by 2010 to keep up.

After a year of organized labor victories on other campuses, university workers, whether or not they choose to join the U.S.A. or similar groups, may very well force T.S.E.U. to reevaluate its tactics on university campuses. Will it become an organization known for fighting for university staff or one not known at all? Nationally, union membership is up, totaling 16.5 million workers this year. But if it expects to draw on these increases, T.S.E.U. will have to take a close look at stories of successful graduate student organizing in Iowa, Illinois, New York, and California. On the other hand, the politics that fly in Austin sink in El Paso or Lubbock or Huntsville. And at the Texas Legislature, it’s political reality – not abstract critique – that informs union strategy. “If we put collective bargaining on a public platform, all those Republicans we depend on to sponsor our legislation would know T.S.E.U. is on the other side,” Gross reminded the graduate students. “The most progressive organizations in Texas have been unable to produce that.”

Michael Erard is a writer living in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST