“We’ll just yell louder”: Campus employee union calls for COVID-19 health and safety measures


Recent UK graduate Ash Baker and PhD student Rachel Davis canvass for signatures on UCW’s petition asking UK for action on COVID-related employee concerns on Saturday, August 15, across the street from the Gatton Student Center on UK’s campus in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Natalie Parks | Staff

Sarah Michels

Months before the pandemic hit, UK graduate students were already organizing a union to ensure the campus community’s health and safety.

They had seen graduate workers and faculty spearheading big changes at other universities, pressing administrations for living wages and better healthcare plans. They were all part of United Campus Workers (UCW), a union whose goal is to “take higher education back from corporations and billionaires and put it in the hands of workers, students and communities,” according to its website.

The UK graduate students asked themselves, “Why not here?”

Created in late 2019, UCW Kentucky is open to every UK employee, from graduate workers to faculty and staff to healthcare and facilities workers. The union now has over 200 members, said one of the organizers, graduate worker Zeke Perkins.

When COVID-19 hit, the union was poised to act.

In May, UCW published an open letter to UK President Eli Capilouto and Gov. Andy Beshear calling for several changes at Kentucky higher education institutions to ensure job security and safety for campus workers during the pandemic.

The union has put public pressure on the administration, Perkins said, including pressuring Capilouto to take a 10 percent pay cut on this year’s salary, a step UK spokesperson Jay Blanton had previously told the Kernel the administration wouldn’t take.

“It was a clear marker of our strength,” Perkins said of the pay cut.

Perkins said he thinks UCW’s call-in days contributed to the pressure that caused UK administration to extend research funding to graduate students, bring back furloughed staff quicker than originally planned and expand COVID-19 testing to faculty and staff.

Now, months into the pandemic and weeks into the reopened semester, UCW has new ideas for changes UK should implement.

Their latest petition, posted in late August, lists seven COVID-related demands:

• Free, continuous testing for all students, faculty and workers

• Greater transparency regarding COVID infections, deaths and contact tracing

• A remote option for all faculty and staff whose work can be done virtually

• COVID healthcare cost coverage for campus workers

• Affordable, comprehensive healthcare for campus workers extending beyond COVID

• Hazard pay to campus workers who must work in-person

• A meeting between UCW and UK administration to discuss the aforementioned demands

UCW believes that their pressure, along with the concerns of other groups, led to the first demand has already been met. On Sept. 3, UK announced that they would be offering free, continuous testing for asymptomatic students and faculty for the remainder of the fall semester.

With the release of the Phase II testing dashboard, the university has also made strides towards transparency, although union members are still skeptical about the discrepancy between the county health department and UK’s speed in reporting cases among the campus community.

“The way that a test works, it’s a snapshot in time…you can be exposed to COVID the second you walk away from that test,” said Jed DeBruin, UCW member and graduate student. “You have to be very quick on getting these numbers out, recording it honestly. Suppressing it is only going to make it worse.”

DeBruin added that while UCW understands UK’s reluctance to be completely transparent considering the economic ramifications of shutting down campus, they should prioritize the campus and city’s health over the financial bottom line.

“It’s understandable why they don’t want to be forced in that direction, but we’re saying risking that at the sake of public health, it seems like that’s a really bad trade-off,” he said.

The status of the other demands is less certain.

UK spokesperson Jay Blanton said faculty members had discretion on the format for their classes—virtual, hybrid or in-person.

As for the UCW’s healthcare cost concerns, Blanton said that UK’s current student health plan – which many graduate workers are eligible for – is highly competitive, as it covers the cost of the student’s premium. However, he had no estimate for how much hazard pay for in-person workers would cost the university, since that option is not currently under consideration.

While UCW has been trying to schedule a meeting with Capilouto and Provost David Blackwell, DeBruin said the last two or three meetings they’ve had set up have been cancelled by administration at the last second.

Blanton said that while graduate students from the UCW have met with members of the administration in the past, no meetings with the UCW are currently planned.

UCW member and associate professor Francis Bailey said these meetings offer administrators a unique perspective, since the union represents all workers at UK.

Bailey said faculty members are also unhappy with the lack of transparency regarding the hiring of the interim Arts and Sciences dean, Christian Brady. Brady will temporarily replace Dean Kornbluh, who was dismissed from his position at the College of Arts and Sciences last week.

“There’s a provision in the faculty governance system that we’re supposed to have input into his replacement and that wasn’t followed at all,” Bailey said. “There was no input at all…I think the union will be supporting that.”

Provost Blackwell is in the process of meeting with College of Arts and Sciences faculty to seek input for Kornbluh’s permanent replacement in what will be a “collaborative and consultative process,” Blanton said.

Though Kentucky’s Right to Work law limiting the effectiveness of collective bargaining, DeBruin said UCW Kentucky still has at least one piece of leverage—UK’s brand.

“They present this very pristine, clean image of who they want us to believe that they are,” DeBruin said. “(E)veryone who’s involved in the union has seen the dirtier side of that.”

DeBruin described graduate students working long hours with insufficient living stipends, facilities workers still waiting for new uniforms and PPE promised long ago and increasing expectations on already-overwhelmed professors as examples of the realities of UK.

UCW Kentucky has used UK’s image in their public pressure campaigns to push the administration toward action.

But as a relatively new union, UCW Kentucky’s primary focus is gathering data. Bailey said the data focus is on the economic pressures UK is under to keep campus open, UK’s contractual obligations and their position on budgetary issues. So far, this has been a struggle.

“There’s just all these roadblocks to trying to get information,” Bailey said.

One example of a contractual obligation UCW is concerned about is UK’s agreements with Greystar, a real estate developer. DeBruin said that they’ve seen that when other universities have privatized things like dining and dorms, they’ve experienced higher economic pressure to act in ways that might not necessarily align with actions best for the campus community. This could include keeping a campus open to meet contractual obligations despite the potential dangers to students and faculty.

“Who’s holding who responsible?” DeBruin asked. “Is that impacting where we’re seeing number of cases, is that why we’re getting information withheld from us? Because if that information is fully released, people will realize that’s really messed up?”

Bailey said campus workers should join UCW if they want their voice heard regarding issues such as these or other workplace issues they may be experiencing.

The goal is to eventually have every campus worker join UCW Kentucky, DeBruin said. They hope that new members bring new perspectives and experiences that allow the union to fight toward improved lives and better conditions for everyone on campus.

“I think it’s easy to get very cynical and say we don’t have control over anything, but we are demonstrating that we have some sort of control and we have some input,” DeBruin said. “If they want to listen to us, they will, and if they don’t, we’ll just yell louder.”