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Memphis, TN: Rally for a Living Wage Continues
The Daily Helmsman
Elizabeth Cooper

February 8, 2012
View the Original Article

Jean Rimmer fought back tears as she spoke of the conflict between work and family life that she encounters while working multiple jobs, one of which is a University of Memphis custodian.

Rimmer is one of many University of Memphis employees who makes below the Memphis area living wage of $11.62 an hour, as a study by U of M professor of economics David Ciscel found.

"I'm sorry," Rimmer said. "I don't know why all of a sudden I just got so overwhelmed."

Her testimony was part of the Rally for a Living Wage at Gift of Life Ministries Saturday to address the ongoing efforts of state legislators to repeal the city and county living wage and inspire support for The U of M living wage campaign that began in fall 2010. Worker's Interfaith Network, United Campus Workers and The U of M Progressive Student Alliance sponsored the event.

Rimmer has worked at The University for five years and makes $8 per hour. She said she has requested a promotion on three occasions and was turned down each time.

Josephine Calhoun, who has worked at The U of M for 23 years and makes $9.79 an hour, also spoke at the event. She said The University spends money on projects like the tiger statues while many of the campus workers struggle to meet their basic needs.

She also said many workers are afraid to join the union for fear of losing their jobs.

Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy and City Councilmen Myron Lowery and Lee Harris spoke at the rally in support of the living wage.

"I can't believe we would have to fight with The University of Memphis to do what is right," Lowery said.

However, University of Memphis officials said the issue is more complicated than this.

"The University of Memphis is committed to dealing with all employees to have the resources to live a reasonable lifestyle, but we are restricted by the guidelines of Tennessee Board of Regents and that state," University Provost Ralph Faudree said.

In the fall of 2011, the TBR passed a pay increase of three percent – or minimum of $750 a year – for all higher education employees, a victory which WIN and UCW said is due in part to their lobbying efforts.

The U of M also increased monthly insurance premium rates for University employees from $228 to $335 per month in 2011.

"While it's an important first step in getting towards a living wage," said Executive Director of WIN Rebekah Gienapp. "Things like the increase in insurance premium show that The University needs to take more steps to get everyone up to a living wage."

While The U of M has no living wage policy, Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission passed their first living wage ordinances in 2006 and 2007 respectively.

The ordinances instituted a minimum wage of $10 per hour if health insurance was included or $12 an hour without insurance for all city and county employees. It also required that any business receiving city and county funding pay their employees the same living wage.

A bill that is currently circulating through state legislation threatens to repeal the local living wage ordinances if passed.

At the rally, Mulroy said the state functions under the philosophy of "limited government, local control." However, lawmakers push aside this limited government whenever local ordinances differ from what the state government desires to institute such as the case of the living wage, he said.

WIN will travel to Nashville on March 7 to lobby against the bill and to advocate for an increased living wage.