When the University of Memphis faculty and staff senates voiced official support for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for university employees, President M. David Rudd followed up with surprising support.

Surprising because, according to union members, Rudd said at the university’s September board of trustees meeting he would not speak with union representatives until they gained staff senate support. Once that was achieved, he moved the goalpost and added faculty support as a requirement.

“A public announcement is him finally acknowledging all the hoops he made employees jump through to get to this point,” said Jayanni Webster, organizer for West Tennessee United Campus Workers.

But union members and the administration disagree on how to make the pay raise happen for the lowest-paid workers.

Union members and the administration disagree on how to make the pay raise happen for the lowest-paid workers.

After spending seven years organizing staff and faculty at U of M, a major step by United Campus Workers was passing a resolution in December 2018 calling for the $15-an-hour minimum wage increase. On Jan. 10, Rudd sent a university-wide email expressing support for the measure.

Now, the union wants the wage boost to happen this budget year, requiring approval by July 1 for fall 2020 raises to start. But in closed-door meetings, Rudd has indicated he supports offering incremental raises over five to seven years, according to Meghan Cullen, a union member and staff senate president.

Rudd did not return calls from MLK50: Justice Through Journalism for comment.

In response to the union’s resolution, Rudd wrote: “Most important, though, is the creation of a sustainable financial model that allows implementation of a significant wage increase, one that does not result in unfair restrictions in the wages of other university employees, and one that does not require dramatic increases in tuition and fees.”

No such restrictions seem to apply to the university’s highest-paid employees.

University of Memphis raised salaries of its highest-paid employees — those who earn more than $200,000 — to the tune of $1.5 million in total, according to Máté Wierdl, a U of M math professor who analyzed public salary data to make a series of conclusions about the effect of a minimum wage increase.

The cost to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour would cost $1.8 million, according to Wierdl.

Why $15? Well, that amount — $28,800 a year — is what’s being demanded by the national Fight for $15 campaign. Moreover, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator puts the living wage for Shelby County between $11.06 and $16.15, depending on the number of children and adults in a household.

Breakdown by Máté Weirdl, University of Memphis math professor, based on public data.

At the University of Memphis, the wage issue highlights class tensions with additional racial and gendered contours.

Employees currently earning less than $15 an hour are disproportionately black and female, public salary data shows. Of 2,585 full-time employees, 334 earn less than $15 an hour. Of these 334 employees, 62.5 percent are female and 76 percent are black. For every dollar an African-American person earns at the University of Memphis, a white person makes 52 cents more, and an Asian employee makes 98 cents more, Weirdl’s analysis shows.

Breakdown by Máté Weirdl, University of Memphis math professor, based on public data.

“It’s a moral crisis,” Webster said. “It really lets you know who the university values. It’s not the black workers who insure that everybody can come to a clean, safe workplace.

“When you look at the amount of money being wasted on a few people at the top, then you can say, ‘Let’s sit down with these numbers and look at our mission. Higher education is a public good, it’s not a business.’ ”

Eula Burks, who has worked as a custodian at the university since 2013, says she and her similarly paid co-workers are living paycheck to paycheck. She says not only have their wages only minimally increased in the past few years but also they are now asked to take on extra work. As custodians retire, according to Burks, instead of replacing them with new workers, the university doubles the remaining staff’s workload.

“I am cleaning twice as many buildings now, and it still takes me two paychecks to pay off my bills, Burks said. “Why can’t we get eight hours? They only give us seven and a half, so we work overtime, and it still isn’t 80 hours. It’s a waste of the gas. We’re working for free, that’s what we’re doing.”

Raising wages for the lowest-paid workers comes with the risk of making higher-paid workers frustrated, Cullen said of a prevailing sentiment in some corners of campus. The staff senate hopes to make the case that raising the floor would “raise all ships,” meaning all workers would benefit from a material and psychic lift for those at the bottom of the pay scale.

Cullen, a librarian, earns $16.06 an hour and works a second job.

“I’m struggling,” Cullen said, “so I can only imagine what it’s like for someone working 10 to 20 years making only $10 or $12 an hour. I call it velvet handcuffs. You’re not able to take advantage of benefits; you’re just over enough.”

Similarly, Coriana Close, a faculty senate member who teaches art, said professors support the raise, and the resolution is a major shift in faculty engagement because their wages, too, have “been repressed for several years.” Because no full-time professor earns less than $15 an hour, Close points out they want their own raises.

Those approaching this issue from a framework of equality would embrace raises for all involved. However, Close recognizes the need for equity in this situation, which means prioritizing the lowest-paid employees. She said she is frustrated that racism and sexism is reflected in the institution “years after MLK,” and what Dr. Martin Luther King and his poverty-fighting agenda still means for Memphis.

“As a female worker, I take it personally,” Close said.

Dr. M. David Rudd’s Jan. 10 letter announces support for raising the minimum wage, but he cautions the need for due diligence, such as understanding the effect on tuition.

Does Rudd genuinely support a $15 minimum wage?

Webster and Cullen say, “Yes.”

“He doesn’t have any other choice but to support it,” Webster said. “The two institutional bodies that represent the faculty and staff have said they want this.”

The crux, Webster said, seems to be “if not now, when?”

The crux, Webster said, seems to be “if not now, when?”

“The working-class continues to be a part of changing their conditions, but then you always have people at the top who have the decisions to really change their lives who always say, “Wait, why don’t we take our time with this?’ Wait for what?” Webster asked.

“Miss Doris has been working here 18 years,” Webster said, referring to a long-time custodian. “Before she retires, will she see a wage that reflects her dignity?”

Breakdown by Máté Weirdl, University of Memphis math professor, based on public data.

Close said implementing the raise is also a question of aligning the university’s values with their actions.

“Are we going to be leaders in providing decent-paying jobs? What are the implications for our students? If we don’t pay a decent wage, do we expect students who go into business to do so?”

Neither the union, nor faculty and staff want to raise tuition nor believe such an action is necessary to raise the wage floor: “We do have the money,” Close said.

Because Rudd mentioned tuition increases in his email of support, United Campus Workers is concerned tuition will be used as a bargaining chip or as a way to blame workers for tuition increases.

“What the University of Memphis probably won’t tell you is at the last board of trustees meeting, there’s already a plan to incrementally raise tuition over the next few years that has nothing to do with this,” Webster said.

Webster said the reputed plan is well-intentioned, designed to prevent a large increase at one time and is not associated with the wage increase issue.

“They can come up with the numbers and have all the meetings they want to,” Webster said. “But if they cannot tell us when this will happen, then there’s no reason to be having these conversations.”

“We want $15 [an hour] by the next budget cycle,” she continued. “Fall 2020 is the next time people can see $15, and that is decided this year. If not now, when will they do it? Any other answer besides fall of 2020 is wrong.”

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.