You wouldn’t think folks at the University of Tennessee would have much to protest about: the state has been hailed as a model for public higher education reform. Governor Bill Haslam’s celebrated plan for tuition-free community college statewide has become a national model for the White House’s much-hyped community-college-for-all proposal, and the governor’s latest budget proposes a $1.5 million expansion of the tuition break to older adults attending two-year programs, along with extra grants to reward schools for academic performance. But the protests are coming from one group on campus that’s more concerned with the payroll than with the dean’s list. The workers who make the university system run worry that while “college access” is broadening, their economic security may continue to shrink.
The new budget would impose major “reforms” to the healthcare benefits of career civil servants. The cutbacks for retired workers and the newest hires, according to Commercial Appeal, include “ending eligibility for pre-age-65 retiree health insurance to state employees and school-district employees hired after July 1, 2015; ending eligibility, after July 1, for state health insurance for part-time state employees.”
The budget also proposes so-called “flexibility” for the state to offer current workers a more limited defined-contribution retirement health plan, instead of the traditional, typically more stable, defined-benefit scheme. The state may also seek authority to tweak the healthcare subsidy formulas for active employees.
The United Campus Workers-Communications Workers of America Local 3865 union (UCW) is galled that the cutbacks have been proposed amid the governor’s boasts of making higher education affordable for all. Will their kids get free tuition while parents pay more for basic healthcare? Doubling the irony is that the target population of the new expansion of Tennessee Promise—the new funds are aimed at adult learners with a few college credits already—are perhaps the type of folks who might work a campus custodial job and take classes on the side at night: will they see the new tuition boost offset by shrinking benefits, or have to forgo community college courses to take on a second job?
The students campaigning in solidarity with the UCW recognize the fact that the tuition break is just one piece of the promise—one that the state seems to have bargained for on the backs of public servants. Student organizer Lindsey Smith tells The Nation via e-mail:
we are struggling to understand how Gov. Haslam can put money into such a plan, but completely ignore the campus workers’ pleas for better working conditions and higher wages. His plan is to supposedly help traditionally marginalized, working class students to get a higher education degree…but what happens to those students when they graduate? Not to mention, what about the people that are already in the workforce?