Two white women holding signs in front of the Georgia Capital in protest
President of the United Campus Workers of Georgia Jill Penn, left, and Secretary Bekah Ward hold signs in front of the Capitol in protest on Feb. 1, 2022. (Shawn Watkins/ Fresh Take Georgia)

The United Campus Workers of Georgia protested outside the Capitol Tuesday on Lobby Day to bolster support for a living wage. At least one lawmaker was listening.

“This is a voice that has not been heard in the past and you have created a platform to build and resonate your message,” said Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat.

About 20 educators and students rallied for fair wages for campus workers and to drop the special institution fee. Speakers included Orrock and Rep. Spencer Frye, an Athens Democrat, who supported the cause. 

Gov. Brian Kemp recommended in his 2023 budget proposal to remove the special institution fee and provide a $5,000 raise for each state employee. 

The special institution fee was created in 2009 following the Great Recession. State coffers were low. To replenish those funds, the fee was added to help universities balance their budgets and continue providing the same level of services. The fees cover athletics, transportation, student health, student activities, technology, faculty, and mandatory food services. 

Jill Penn, co-president of United Campus Workers of Georgia, said Kemp’s proposals were a step in the right direction, but the pay raise is not enough, due to the rising cost of health insurance and medical care.

The union, which represents staff, faculty, undergraduate and graduate assistants of the University System of Georgia, has been protesting throughout the state over the past year demanding more funding, Covid safety and tenure changes from the Board of Regents and Georgia General Assembly. United Campus Workers have 950 members at 21 USG institutions including chapters at Georgia State University, University of Georgia, Kennesaw University, Georgia Southern and North Georgia. 

Organizers of the rally said campus workers have been struggling since the start of the pandemic to pay bills and live comfortably due to the rising cost of living. Due to inflation, the cost of living has gone up, and Atlanta has one of the highest inflation rates among major cities in the nation at 7.9% according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. This has prompted educators to leave the field and left current workers to pick up the slack, the group said. 

United Campus Workers are pushing three major initiatives and bills. The first is a House bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The second is a Senate resolution to apply consistent raises to counteract wage stagnation. The group also wants higher education appropriations to be restored to the 2008 pre-recession percentage of 67%, which now stands at 48%. That way students will pay less for a college degree by a few grand and workers can get adequate pay.

Following two years of protests from the United Campus Workers, the Senate University Fees study committee finally recommended removing the special institution fee and increasing funding for campus workers in their final report in November of 2021. 

“Higher education can be so much better,” said Penn. “It can do so much good for the community and everyone. We need more funding and more money to do that.” 

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