By Talbert Toole
Editors Note: At the time of publication, the University of Mississippi administration had not responded to multiple inquiries from Hottytoddy.com.
The United Campus Workers of Mississippi (UCW), as the first higher education union in the state, is continuing its process of mobilizing efforts to uplift and support those willing to unionize for a better living and working atmosphere.
The union, whose mission is to advocate for better working conditions, released a statement Nov. 4 demanding transparency from the university’s highest office—the Lyceum. Their points including transparency, fair pay and accountability. In addition, the union is advocating for a fair livable wage for staff at the university.
Prior to the union’s recent statement, it sent a letter to the previous administration on June 25 detailing troubling reports of workplace harassment, bullying, retaliation and erosion of shared governance.
The letter detailed concern specifically regarding those who participated in Staff Council— an organization whose mission is to support the mission of the university by serving as an advisory group to the chancellor (or the chancellor’s representatives) in matters that affect the welfare of the institution and/or its staff.
“We received troubling reports that members of Staff Council were instructed that they could no longer perform their voluntary duties without permission from their supervisors because their voluntary duties were considered overtime if they took place outside of the normal workday,” the letter states.
The letter also states that work that had been previously performed by members of the Staff Council was now considered overtime and would not be paid.
Conor Dowling, a member of UCW and associate professor of political science, said it is up to a supervisor’s discretion whether or not the employee would be allowed to receive overtime pay while performing Staff Council duties outside the standard business day.
“From the UCW’s perspective, if a supervisor is unwilling to allow someone to participate in Staff Council because they do not want to pay overtime for it, then it effectively neuters the shared governance model by eliminating the people who are able to participate on Staff Council,” Dowling said.
In addition to overtime pay, both the June 25 letter and the Nov. 4 letter state the UCW has received several reports from university employees regarding workplace harassment from middle and upper management.
Dowling said the root problem is staff members not necessarily knowing how to handle these specific types of situations which include but are not limited to sexual harassment, false claims about an individual’s job performance, and withholding payment for work-related duties. The UCW has still yet to receive a response regarding these allegations and how to move forward with these incidents in the workplace.
“That’s why we made this statement public,” Dowling said. “The UCW’s perspective is that there’s a lot of workers who feel like that they can’t speak up because they’re worried about what might happen to them in their job.”
Dowling noted that the UCW is simply wanting clarification and transparency from the university administration on how its employees should handle these situations and move forward without having to endure severe consequences from his or her direct supervisors, especially if the situation involves that supervisor.
One of the main demands the UCW made in its Nov. 4. letter was fair pay for university employees.
“No campus worker should have to take on a second job just to make ends meet, and no worker should ever go without access to adequate and affordable healthcare,” the letter states.
Twenty to 25 percent of university employees work in positions where the maximum pay range is less than a living wage of $15 per hour, according to the UCW.
In the “Poverty and Well-being Profiles” of Lafayette County, released in 2018 by the Mississippi State University Extension, the population of Lafayette County is 47,666 with 21,414 residing in the city limits of Oxford.
In Lafayette County, 12,076 live in poverty while 7,588 in the city live in poverty. Child poverty is at 31.1 percent, young adult poverty is at 56.8 percent, and older adult poverty is at 3.2 percent.
According to the data, the median household income for white households in Lafayette County stands at $51,218, while for black households the median household income stands at $32,757—more than an $18,000 difference.
For Lafayette County, the living wage for an adult with no child is $11.52, while for an adult with one child it’s $21.94.
The living wage is the hourly rate that an individual must earn to support their family, with minimum wage being $7.25 per hour. The values are per adult in a family. Full–time is considered as 2,080 hours per year whereas part-time is considered someone who works fewer than 35 hours per week.
Now, the UCW has begun the steps to push a $15 minimum wage across the campus like what the country has seen in many states, Dowling said.
“Whether $15 is the right amount, I don’t know,” Dowling said. “But it’s a starting point from our perspective of getting there.”
In efforts to combat the cost of living in the city of Oxford, the Board of Aldermen gave full-time city employees a 1.5 percent cost of living raise in September.
The Lafayette County Board of Supervisors followed the Aldermen’s incentive in helping its employees by giving all full-time county employees a $100 a month raise.
“Even within the city, the city workers’ minimum pay, as far as I know, is higher than those on campus,” Dowling said.
Dowling recently sent a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) to the university administration requesting the breakdown of how university employees are paid based on gender and race; however, Dowling said the administration sent him a PDF version of a book located in the library. The book contains every staff and faculty member’s pay, but is simply broken down by position, not gender or race.
Dowling said this did not help clarify how each employee is paid, especially when looking into specifics regarding the cost of living in the city or county.
“The university won’t post its wage data online, and they won’t post the salary data online,” said James Thomas, a tenured sociology professor. “That doesn’t benefit us as workers if we are trying to negotiate for better pay or benefits, to not know what the standards are across campus. We aren’t empowered to do that.”
Evidence of the Struggle
Dowling said he attended an Associated Student Body event in 2017 called “Adopt-a-Basket,” which is an incentive to “ensure that everyone in the Ole Miss family has a hearty meal to eat for Thanksgiving dinner.” The event caused him to rethink how workers struggle on campus.
“The students on this campus are recognizing those who help them the most…that they are probably not making enough to have a nice Thanksgiving dinner,” Dowling said. “It shouldn’t take the students saying ‘well let’s fill in the gap.'”
Thomas said he also sees university workers struggle monetarily during the holidays.
“We’re relying on charity in order to subsidize what the University should be paying them,” Thomas said. “They’re doing the work that makes this campus function.”
Thomas said the community continuously discusses how great the university campus is, how beautiful the landscape is, the quality of instruction students receive, the quality of services students receive, and yet that does not happen without people doing the work.
“If those people aren’t being paid for that work, that’s a problem,” he said.
Although the UCW has yet to hear from the University of Mississippi administration, Dowling said the UCW will continue to push and unionize to make a difference not only at the University of Mississippi but throughout all of the state’s higher education institutions.
Julia Peoples, Hottytoddy.com intern, contributed to this story.