Anne Lewis : UT-Austin Ponders Privatizing Staff

Members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition gather at the UT-Austin Tower Wednesday, February 6, to protest the University’s consideration of job privatization for staff members. Photo by David Maly / The Horn.

‘Culture war’ at UT-Austin: 
President Powers considers privatization

The most deeply-rooted problem with Powers’ plan for cost cutting through privatization, consolidation, and commercialization is that it does not respect the rights of workers.

By Anne Lewis | The Rag Blog | February 8, 2013

AUSTIN, Texas — On January 29, 2013, University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers convened the UT-Austin community to make recommendations about increasing our efficiency that would include job privatization for university staff.

President Powers’ speech led to despair, anger, and confusion across our campus. Despair and anger came from threatened loss of health care, state pensions, jobs, and community; confusion from the contradiction posed by the projected image of Powers as our defender against the likes of Governor Rick Perry and the University of Texas Board of Regents.

Powers is presented as an administrator who wants both affordability and high quality in a February 2, 2013, Associated Press article, “Texas Fight Highlights Higher Ed Culture Clash.” The article — which says that, “If colleges were automobiles, the University of Texas at Austin would be a Cadillac: a famous brand, a powerful engine of research and teaching” — defines Texas as ground zero in a culture war to preserve educational quality and research, but degenerates towards the end when it quotes Peter Flawn, our emeritus president:

“Universities are by their very nature elite,” he said. “Their job is to separate the sheep from the goats and the goat-sheep from the sheep-goats, and try to produce people who are knowledgeable and can reason, think and solve problems.”

And that, it seems, is the intellectual quality of this particular thread of discussion. I would not characterize my students as sheep, goats, sheep-goats, goat-sheep, nor would I consider the role of a university to be a sorter of the forenamed critters. It is not true that the enemy of our enemy is our friend. I think it’s critical that we look hard at what President Powers said.

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which lays the groundwork for “an existence worthy of human dignity,” states in Article 23:

Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

The most deeply-rooted problem with Powers’ plan for cost cutting through privatization, consolidation, and commercialization is that it does not respect the rights of workers.

The plan is based on a report from the Committee on Business Productivity which convened for the first time in April 2012. Committee Chair Steve Rohleder is part of the executive leadership of Accenture, a global outsourcing company that cost the state of Texas more than $800 million in a failed effort to privatize food stamp and TANF eligibility. Other members of the committee are tied to equity firms TPG, Capital Royalty, HM Capital, Falconhead Capital, and Bull Ventures; and to Boeing, StarTex, Dell, and Susser.

President Powers says that the only way that UT-Austin can become “the very best public university in America” is to operate like a business through outsourcing and privatization of services; market costs to students for meal plans, housing, and parking; job reductions through consolidation of human resources, technology, and financial processing; and commercialization of intellectual property. He calls this a moral imperative.

President Powers states, “We’ve been outsourcing all along: we don’t have a fleet of airplanes used by faculty to get to meetings; we use Southwest Airlines.”

UT probably should not own a fleet of airplanes and pay the pilots with public funds. But the relationship of pilots to our university is quite different from that of workers who serve food, clean buildings, support our offices and technical facilities, and generally keep the university running.

These workers (who include many students) will lose and lose big — guaranteed pay levels and advancement possibilities, state pensions and benefits, safety and environmental standards, rules against discrimination in employment, and the right to join a union.

I also question the assumption that cost-saving experiments endorsed by finance capital are best for the citizens of Texas. Accenture’s failed contract needlessly increased the suffering of thousands of poor and working class Texans and their children. The attempt to take over management of the Kerrville State Hospital last year by Geo Group, the private prison corporation, was resolved when State Health Commissioner David Lakey stated that reductions in staffing would put both the patients and the State of Texas at risk.

The notion that a business model is the only way for human endeavors to succeed seems strange at best. Cost cutting business practices have contributed to economic inequality, disregard of safety and environmental standards, and discrimination in employment. It’s why we need laws, government regulation, and labor unions where workers can have a collective voice.

It’s often more — not less — expensive when neoliberals turn not-for-profit into profit-making ventures. The savings that come from lower pay, lower health care costs, and erosion of pensions for workers will most likely benefit the company more than our university. That’s part of the margin of profit. The other part is increased cost for services.

We already see Powers’ suggestion that students should pay the market value — 50% more for their privatized meal plans; 113% more for privatized parking for staff and students; more for privatized student housing — all going towards the profits of contracted corporations and none benefiting our community.

President Powers boasts that “over the past five years, some 4,000 people left the payroll voluntarily. That’s 20 percent of UT’s core staff workforce.” Those jobs and positions have not been replaced. The thought of an additional 20 percent cutback is feared not only by workers who may not leave voluntarily but also by their co-workers who have added workloads and sometimes have impossible jobs.

Go to any office in our university at 7 p.m. and you will find workers who have been there since 8 a.m.. The work of support staff is necessary for the university to function properly. It’s wrong to balance a budget on job loss and inadequate staffing.

Finally, in an unfortunate example, President Powers compares the effort, which will be led by Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty, to the Pope moving an obelisk in 1586. As a union woman who respects the dignity of work both intellectual and manual, I ask who exactly carried that 344-ton obelisk and under whose organizational authority.

We’re sure that Mr. Hegarty would agree that he has none of the moral authority of a pope. Our university is not a 344-ton obelisk. We who devote our intellect, energy, and care to UT should have a voice in these decisions that so deeply impact our lives, our families, and our community.

I would suggest another approach. President Powers should go to the Texas legislature and demand that Texas pay its share with the same force he used to promote Austin taxpayer funding of a new medical school.

The Texas Constitution (1876) states:

The Legislature shall establish, organize and provide for the maintenance, support and direction of a university of the first class, styled “The University of Texas.”

Thirty years ago, Texas funded more than half of the budget of UT-Austin. It’s now down to 13%. President Powers should join us at the Capitol on April 10 for a march and rally in defense of the public good and public workers.

Will Rogers once said, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.”

[Anne Lewis, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas and a member of TSEU-CWA Local 6186 and NABET-CWA, is an independent filmmaker associated with Appalshop. She is co-director of Anne Braden: Southern Patriot, associate director of Harlan County, U.S.A, and the producer/director of Fast Food Women, To Save the Land and People, Morristown: in the air and sun, and a number of other social issue and cultural documentaries. Her website is annelewis.org.]

The Rag Blog

This entry was posted in Rag Bloggers and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Anne Lewis : UT-Austin Ponders Privatizing Staff

  1. Leslie C. says:

    Glad Anne’s message is getting a wider audience through the Rag Blog. Let’s be clear that the cutbacks/privatization/price increases affect not only UT workers and students but the whole community. This plan is yet another step in the downward spiral of working class living conditions in our society. If anyone thinks that he or she is unaffected because he/she does not work or study at UT–you’ve got another think coming.
    I look forward to a productive working relationship between our union (the Texas State Employees Union) and the UT Students Against Sweatshops in a struggle against President Powers’ attack on all of us.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Wow, Listening to Anne whine about the changes that would come to employees at UT is heartening and chuckle inducing. Someone in power has finally stated the obvious, UT workers have no inherent entitlement to be treated as a special class of workers.

    Students might have to pay market price for their meals and parking. I am aghast! UT workers will lose their “right” to join a union. (there is no such “right” and workers are free to waste their money on union dues at any time they wish)

    The right of a worker to change jobs if they no longer enjoy the one they have, is the most important right that UT workers possess. The changes president Powers is recommending wont alter that. They are free to leave if they want to work elsewhere.

    – Extremist2TheDHS

  3. Anne Lewis says:

    Hey mr/ms troll,

    Did you crib from the National Right to Work Committee? Sounds like them — the John Birch Society reincarnated. Might be a good idea for you to reboot with the UN Declaration of Human Rights or the 1st Amendment Freedom of Assembly. Workers do have rights. They are called human rights. And, by the way, no whining here — organizing with my fellow workers. Enough wasted time on a miserable set of reactionary ideas for exploiters and power mongers.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I was feeling bad for calling you a whiner, but I guess you got your payback with your post 🙂
    It may be a shock to learn that I dont need to crib from anyone. Even though I am not a progressive elitist, I reason all by myself .. shocking I know. Of course workers have rights. I ought to know, long ago I was an organizer for the Texas branch of an AFL-CIO affiliated national labor union. I was even a delegate to the state Democratic convention. Private unions are a waste, but at least its the companies bottom line that pays the price. Public unions are a blight. Its the public taxpayer that foots the bill for incestual relationship between politicians and public unions. The health of the Texas economy is in large part due to its pro business and pro worker choice laws. I see no reason for UT workers to receive any special treatment.

    – Extremist2TheDHS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.