When I entered my freshman semester at the University of Georgia in the fall of 2020, I was unsure of many things. For some reason, however, I was convinced that there would be no school building with controversial names. In fact, I was so sure that my university would never be to blame for this that I didn’t even bother to check it out well into my time at UGA. For months I went to my classes at Baldwin, LeConte, and Park Hall, unaware that I was studying in buildings named after a slave trader, a white supremacist, and a Confederate officer, respectively.
After all the changes I had seen across the country, I was shocked to see that UGA was unwilling to take such a fundamental step towards inclusion. Looking at the history of the controversy, I quickly realized it was no coincidence. In recent years, Georgia’s university system has implemented unpopular, conservative policies against the wishes of students and workers with increasing intensity. The issue of renaming buildings was only part of a long ideological pattern of Georgia’s Republican-dominated university system.
Although this approach is entirely non-contact, the USG can act unilaterally as state law is designed to remove all possible controls on its power. They can do as they please because employees at the University of Georgia and other universities across the state lack even basic labor rights and protections under state law, which deprives university employees of any say in campus governance.
These laws are hardly new, most dating from the 1940s when Georgia was establishing itself as an anti-union “right to work” state. While this law has made Georgia a hostile state to workers of all stripes, public sector workers have been arguably the most targeted. This is because state law prohibits collective bargaining among public workers in the state of Georgia, rendering even the most basic expressions of worker power utterly impossible.
This restriction has allowed Georgia’s university system and its supporters to operate with impunity and has led to bad, partisan politics that goes well beyond renaming buildings. Because of this, Georgia entered semester 2020 with a lax Covid policy that made Athens one of the most infected cities in the country. For this reason, the UGA decided to lay off over 500 workers as the pandemic progressed due to alleged budget constraints, while maintaining pre-Covid-19 crisis university management salaries. Recently, it empowered the USG in its assault on property protections, a move that threatens the accreditation of every public university in the state, and allows it to appoint far-right political hackers to top positions in education.
These actions are not normal. Other states, where workers have a real say in how their workplace is run, don’t make such decisions. Their educational administrators spend more time attending to the needs of students and staff and less time installing people like Sonny Perdue in top positions.
A strong campus union could not only help achieve these immediate policy changes, but also help improve UGA. Research has shown that there is a link between unionization and the efficiency and effectiveness of academic institutions. Workers would also see the obvious gains in higher wages and benefits resulting from collective bargaining, making UGA a more attractive place to work, especially in a tight labor market. Everyone can benefit from a university with respected, well-paid and motivated employees.
While a university union capable of collective bargaining wouldn’t solve all of UGA’s problems overnight, it would offer these benefits along with a much-needed counterbalance to a runaway, far-right state agency. UGA, like the rest of Georgia’s universities, desperately needs leadership that cares more about students and less about promoting their political agenda. A change to this policy could go a long way towards helping that.