Public Workers Worried That Tennessee’s Billionaire Governor Is Taking Another Run at Them

With the UT Focus Act, Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee may have found a way to privatize large numbers of state jobs.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam speaks during the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee during a hearing to discuss ways to stabilize health insurance markets?, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam speaks during the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee during a hearing to discuss ways to stabilize health insurance markets on Capitol Hill on September 7, 2017. Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP

Last year, Tennessee’s governor attempted a frontal assault on the unionized workers that staff the state’s facilities and management jobs at public buildings, two-thirds of which are state-run colleges. Gov. Bill Haslam, the richest U.S. elected official not named Donald Trump, signed a contract with a facilities management firm to privatize those jobs. But a prodigious campaign by the campus employee union and student activists led to nearly the entire University of Tennessee system publicly opting out of the contract.

For a union that is legally prohibited from collective bargaining, going up against a stacked deck of conservative lawmakers and powerful corporations and coming out with a win was a spectacular feat. But Haslam appears to have found a work-around.

The Tennessee legislature is on the verge of passing a bill to overhaul the University of Tennessee’s entire board of trustees, allowing Haslam to hand-pick the replacements. That board could pressure campuses to opt back into the privatization contract at any time over the next four years.

“We think it’s a pretty big threat,” said Thomas Walker of United Campus Workers, the lead union for facilities employees at Tennessee colleges. “This allows Haslam to create a board of political and business allies. He’s trying to make a crony board.”

The bill, called the UT Focus Act, mirrors a successful 2016 effort to change out all members of the board of regents for six state universities outside the UT system. By the end, Haslam will have personally appointed every member of the public college and university governing bodies in Tennessee, all of whom can opt into the privatization contract his administration negotiated.

Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., or JLL, the world’s largest facilities management firm, signed the $330 million, five-year, sole-source contract in April 2017, covering custodial services, groundskeeping, and repair and maintenance work at all government buildings. Under a concept called “vested outsourcing,” JLL actually co-wrote the terms of the contract with the state government. It also has advised the state on facilities management at state buildings, precisely the activity JLL intends to take over. The Office of Customer Focused Government — not a parody name — inked the deal with JLL.

Under the plan, state workers were not guaranteed to be re-hired, could be transferred up to 50 miles away from their existing employment locations, and were subject to additional background checks and screenings that UCW took to be a pretext to weed out workers. Because of outcry from labor and student leaders, which led even many conservative lawmakers to question the effort, the affected locations were given the option of outsourcing jobs to JLL. Only one campus in the UT system did: Austin Peay State University, which had already outsourced its custodial services and merely transferred those positions into the JLL contract.

Haslam, who expressed disappointment with the UT system opting out, subsequently announced the UT Focus Act in February. In the name of having the UT board of trustees “operate more efficiently and effectively,” the bill would reduce its membership from 27 to 11, with Haslam’s office appointing every member to staggered terms. Tennessee’s General Assembly would have to confirm the members.

Initially, the UT Focus Act was introduced as a “caption” bill, with no actual language. The blanks got filled in last month, giving the opposition little time to organize. Under the bill, staff, faculty, students, regions, and individual campuses do not have guaranteed representation on the board, contrary to current law. It even allows four people from out of state to sit on the board. Later amendments allowed for some alumni representation, and the bill also creates advisory boards for UT campuses, although those boards don’t have as much power, as the trustees don’t have to legally follow the advisors’ recommendations.

Haslam has said publicly that the bill has “zero, zero, zero” to do with privatization. Critics disagree. “It became clear that this is a tremendous backdoor to outsourcing,” said UCW’s Thomas Walker. The way the JLL contract was structured, campuses and other public buildings could opt in at any time over the life of the contract, piece by piece.

While university chancellors ultimately make the decision to opt in, their effective bosses are the board of trustees, who have numerous methods of persuasion to work their will on the universities they oversee. They could hold up budget approvals, or deny faculty hires and new facility construction unless universities agree to outsource. The board of trustees serves as “the ultimate deciders of what goes on at campuses,” Walker added, charging that they could intervene internally and force the UT system to privatize.

Haslam spokesperson Jennifer Donnals did not address outsourcing, writing in an email that “the bill’s purpose is to make the board more effective in its leadership of the University of Tennessee system.”

The bill sailed through the Tennessee Senate but faced significant bipartisan opposition last week in the House, a rarity in the legislature. David Hawk, the Republican Haslam ally who carried the bill, said he would never intentionally damage the UT system because his daughter was headed to UT-Knoxville in the fall. After just ninety minutes of debate, the UT Focus Act needed 50 votes to advance; it received 51.

Both chambers passed slightly different versions, but it was widely expected that work would wrap up on the bill this week. In fact, during the House debate, one lawmaker noted that Haslam told him who the new trustee nominees were. Those names have not been released. Appointment hearings were initially scheduled before the bill was even passed, though they have been postponed. “The board nominations will be announced when they are scheduled to be considered by the General Assembly,” said Haslam spokesperson Jennifer Donnals. “We anticipate that will happen soon, after the legislation is signed into law.”

Nominees would require legislative approval, offering another opportunity to mobilize. However, lawmakers may opt to put all 11 nominees on the consent calendar for an up-or-down vote without much deliberation. “The vote in the House was so divisive, we think there may be a way that nominees are scrutinized,” Walker said.

Top photo: Tenn. Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss ways to stabilize health insurance markets on Capitol Hill, on Sept. 7, 2017.

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