A group of people hold signs demanding a better wage from the University of Memphis.
In June 2019, the Communication Workers of America Public, Healthcare & Education sector held their biannual convention in Memphis at the local United Campus Worker chapter’s request. The conference drew 200 participants who all gathered for a large rally for the Fight for $15 at the University of Memphis. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Last week, the University of Memphis told faculty in an email that it would increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour by June, the result of years of union pressure to pay its workers a living wage. 

Margaret Cook, the former vice president of the Memphis chapter of United Campus Workers, was involved in the long stretch of organizing this campaign. MLK50: Justice Through Journalism asked her to reflect on the victory and the highs and lows experienced on this decade-long path. 

In June 2018, Jayanni Webster, another union organizer, and I decided to attend an important meeting in front of key University of Memphis decision-makers, knowing they would be resistant to our righteous demand. 

Inspired by the fast food and healthcare workers, we would ask for a $15-an-hour minimum wage for the workers at the university. To put this into perspective, across job categories, of all the workers at the university making less than $30,000 per year, 63% were women and 78% were Black.

I was pretty afraid to face these people but Webster gave me a great pep talk. As I spoke with university President M. David Rudd, he challenged me by listing all of the university groups who would need to agree to such a substantial raise. I felt belittled and cried as I walked back to my office. However, that experience made me even more determined to be brave and to show the union power we were building. I vowed that our union, United Campus Workers (Communications Workers of America, Local 3865, Memphis Chapter), would gather support from every group Rudd had named and more.

Let me tell you how we did it

Margaret Cook raises a fist in the air during a rally in 2019 demanding a living wage from the University of Memphis.
Cook at the 2019 rally at the University of Memphis. After this rally, the union gained critical support from Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, Cook writes. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

The original fight for a living wage at the University of Memphis started when the chapter was founded in 2009. At that time, the lowest-paid full-time workers made approximately $15,000 per year. 

Our UCW chapter was started by several workers, including Jean Rimmer and Doris Brooks-Conley – two custodians at the University of Memphis — and Tom Smith, the UCW-CWA organizer based in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

“I remember going all over the place with Tom,” said Rimmer of the nearly 400-mile drive between Knoxville and Memphis. “Sometimes it would be just me and him in the car, but I would go. It was important — not only for me but for my co-workers.”

Put on hold

The fight for a living wage had to be shelved in 2015 to focus our efforts on beating back a privatization scheme cooked up by former Gov. Bill Haslam. Across the state, UCW waged the #TNisNOTforSale campaign, to protect over 3,000 custodial and facilities jobs at campuses, state prisons and other offices. Halsam agreed to an outside review of his plan and a union demand for all campuses to choose to “opt-out” when given the choice to privatize with a state-sanctioned vendor. In 2017, the last campus holdout refused to privatize, and we won the fight. It was at this time that I was elected UCW-TN vice president of the Memphis chapter. 

As a union local in a “right to work” state without a contract or bargaining rights, the Memphis chapter could not win any rights for workers without fighting for them. We decided to go on the offensive on our next mission: A $15-an-hour minimum wage.  

Building allies

The anti-privatization campaign helped us build a broad coalition of allies that wanted to protect our jobs and knew we needed to be better compensated for our labor. 

Pastor Earle Fisher speaks through a megaphone during a rally.
Pastor Earle Fisher speaks during an action against privatization of state jobs organized by University of Memphis workers in the United Campus Workers union in April 2017. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

After months of lobbying, UCW obtained a joint resolution in December 2018  by the staff senate and the faculty senate — two of the groups Rudd required us to win over — calling for the minimum pay to be raised. 

Meghan Cullen, then president of the University’s staff senate and current UCW Memphis chapter vice president, has had monthly meetings for the past two years with Rudd to discuss the minimum wage issue. She also pushed for a progressive raise structure, “one that is income-based as opposed to across-the-board percentage increases,” Cullen said. 

UCW lobbied the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission to come out in favor of similar living wage resolutions. Yet the university still balked at the idea. 

In the next several months, UCW gained the support of university alumni leading up to a large rally in June 2019, attended by 200 members of the CWA Public, Healthcare & Education sector in town for their biannual convention, held in Memphis at our request.

Obstacles crumble

After the rally, the dominoes began to fall. UCW enlisted the help of Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, who vetoed a grant to the university on the basis that the campus was not providing a living wage to its workers. 

Shortly thereafter, Rudd tweeted a commitment to raise minimum pay for employees at the University of Memphis to $15 per hour over two years. Nevertheless, UCW members did not give up the fight. 

I am now the CWA vice president, Public, Healthcare and Education Workers sector, though I’m still in touch with my home local. On Jan. 19, I received a text from Doris Brooks-Conley, one of the founding members of the local, informing me that the University had sent an email confirming it would be raising the minimum wage effective this June. I am not ashamed to say I screamed and cried with joy. 

Brooks-Conley won’t be at the university to see the change — she retired this week. But she is still celebrating. 

A portrait of Doris Brooks-Conley
Doris Brooks-Conley, one of the founders of the UCW’s Memphis chapter, in February 2018 at the university’s Barbara K. Lipman Early Education Center, where she worked maintaining the center’s two buildings. She retired this week. Photo by Andrea Morales.

“I feel like Martin Luther King, Jr.,” she texted me. “I have seen the mountaintop. I may not get there with you but I’m so proud to have been a part of this great union.” 

Me too, Mrs. Doris, me too!

Black women have led the fight all the way — not just for better wages, but for dignity and power in the workplace. It is clear that Black women like myself and others deserve union representation. It provides us with allyship and community. We are proud of the work that we do and being a member of the union helps us gain the respect we have earned. 

Margaret Cook is the vice president of the Communications Workers of America for the Public, Healthcare & Education Workers sector.

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