insurance costs

I received an email last week from UT President Bill Powers Jr. You probably got one, too. The letter announced the more-or-less final figures for state budget cuts in funding for the University. The 2012-13 budget for UT will be reduced 16.5 percent from the original 2010-11 budget, a loss of $92.1 million.

In addition to requiring layoffs and heavy cuts to core University programs, the budget will see our insurance costs — premiums, deductibles and co-pays — rise significantly. In spite of the fact that increasing tax revenue or using the state’s Rainy Day Fund would end our budget woes, UT will likely decrease its contribution to our retirement plans. What’s more, the special session of the Texas Legislature is still considering furloughs and permanent salary cuts for faculty and staff. It is worth noting that UT has already made $14 million in cuts since 2009.

Even as Powers stressed the University is prepared to take these hits, the fact of the matter is we are going to feel the pain. We are not alone. At state universities across Texas — and across the country — legislators are imposing serious funding cuts that affect faculty and staff salary and benefits, class sizes, lab and equipment availability, libraries and other resources, and many other areas that have made our institutions great.

Such cuts are often justified by specious studies claiming faculty don’t work hard enough (as if summers were for vacation as opposed to periods of high-pressure research productivity) or that we should measure the success of the University in numerical terms (numbers of students taught in ever larger classes, graduation rates) rather than intellectual ones (research breakthroughs made, students inspired to pursue knowledge, creation of an open community of inquiry and debate).

The question then becomes how do we fight back? How do we insist on the value of higher education in Texas? How do we defend our standard of living? How can we reach the Legislature with our message?

Here’s one good answer to these questions: Join the Texas State Employees Union.

Historically, unions have been workers’ best line of defense against the erosion of workplace rights, safety, wages, benefits and pensions. The Economic Policy Institute has documented the advantages of being in a union: higher wages, more and better benefits, more effective utilization of social insurance programs, more effective enforcement of legislated labor protections, health and overtime regulations, and a strong work force in politics and the broader community. Evidence from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows unionized workers earn more and have a higher standard of living than non-unionized workers (2008 median weekly income for the unionized worker was $880 versus $690 for non-unionized).

Many UT workers don’t know they have a union available to them; one that has defended the rights of faculty and staff for the past three decades. Since 1981, the union has won pay raises for University workers across the UT and A&M systems, established our right to testify in the Legislature, stopped numerous pay freezes, defended health care and pensions and fought off budget cuts and privatization. For example, in 2007, the union won a 4-percent across-the-board raise over two years for all state employees, including University workers.

The union includes state workers across all state institutions from higher education to agencies overseeing health and human services for all Texans. In standing with these workers, and they with us, we create a solidarity that is the basis of our voice and power. At the University, the union’s ranks include hundreds of faculty, graduate instructors, custodians, nurses, administrative employees, security officers, maintenance employees and countless others who are essential to maintaining quality higher education in Texas.

The mission statement of the union’s University Caucus pledges to advocate for pay raises, affordable health care and a secure pension fund. The statement reads, “We will ensure that our voices are heard as decisions that affect us are made at the state, university, and departmental level. We want true Jobs with Justice, where our input is listened to and we are respected for the work we do. Equal treatment and access to real due process are key aspects of our vision of democracy at work.”

Included in this vision of democracy is support for equal insurance benefits for all UT families, including those of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. UT employees committed to winning equal insurance benefits should join and support the union as an important ally.

At the Capitol, it’s been a daunting legislative session, but the University Caucus of the union set as its 2011 legislative goals to fight furloughs of faculty and staff, defend state funding to keep public education public and increase instructional worker (faculty and graduate student teachers) job security and benefits. We will not win these demands this year, but it’s not for lack of advocacy. It takes sustained organization and continual pressure to defend our work and our livelihoods. The more University workers join the union, the more powerful our voice becomes in the long term in asking politicians to respect our work and prioritize our needs.

In these tough times (which are not likely to end soon), we need the union. Please join the union to make it, and us, stronger. For more information and to join, go to http://www.cwa-tseu.org/.

Cloud is an associate communication studies professor.