Despite Haslam push, Board of Trustees still not considering outsourcing campus maintenance jobs

Should Gov. Bill Haslam's plans for outsourcing state jobs go through, the lowest wage earners at Tennessee-owned facilities will be affected most.

For almost two years, East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland has held firm on his position that the Johnson City-based institution will not consider outsourcing jobs on campus.

That’s opposite the stance of Gov. Bill Haslam — who was in attendance at the inaugural meeting for ETSU’s Board of Trustees in March.

Haslam has championed outsourcing as a money-saving mechanism, despite massive pushback from the United Campus Workers, the state’s largest higher education union. Recently, according to The Tennessean, 75 lawmakers signed a letter urging Haslam to postpone his outsourcing plans, which would affect operations on campuses and other state-owned properties.

The workers’ union accused Haslam of secretly signing the outsourcing contract with JLL, a real estate consultant company that already controls operations at state properties.

“Once enacted, the contract will facilitate the largest corporate takeover of public resources in state history — without any meaningful input or participation by the public or the General Assembly, who have largely opposed and criticized the plan,” the United Campus Workers said in a release. “Indeed the Governor and his corporate outsourcing consultants designed the process to deliberately shut out those stakeholders, all while inviting companies, including the winning bidder JLL, to a privileged seat at the table.”

They might not get a seat at the ETSU Board of Trustees table, though, as Noland has been consistent on this. As of late 2016, there were 228 maintenance and custodial workers at ETSU, whose jobs could be effected if the outsourcing took place.

The Haslam administration has touted this possibility as one that could save the state approximately $35 million, though an opt-out option is said to have been part of the agreement, something that ETSU could use, if the Board of Trustees saw fit.

Through ETSU spokesperson Joe Smith, in early January, Noland relayed his thoughts.

“As we have stated on numerous occasions, we are not considering the outsourcing of Facilities Management jobs at ETSU,” Smith said. “We will continue to monitor this situation to ensure that our actions are fully informed as we move through the 2017 calendar year.”

Smith gave an update, with no change to that previous response, saying in the board’s first meeting and recent sub-committee hearings, nothing to signal outsourcing has been discussed or considered to this point.

Dennis Prater, an ETSU adjunct professor and member of the United Campus Workers, applauds Noland’s seemingly unwavering support of campus workers, but given Haslam’s championing of this effort, wonders if outsourcing will be inevitable.

“My sense is that any reluctance to outsource could be a response to the strong mood against outsourcing from the ETSU community,” Prater told the Press. “However, if you speak with custodial staff, they will most likely tell you that empty jobs aren't being filled and that custodians are expected to shoulder increasing workloads as a result. It's still a situation that requires steady vigilance.”

State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, was one of those local lawmakers to stand up for maintenance workers, having been a former employee of ETSU.

In early 2017, Crowe also maintained that saving money might have negative consequences on the services offered.

“I’m as free-market as anyone else,” Crowe then told the Press. “You want to be able to compete and get the best product for your dollars, but when you put it all together and bid for something, you don’t always want the lowest bid, you want the best bid.”

Email Tony Casey at tcasey@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.