Change is coming. Maybe.
Wednesday afternoon, 11 students from the Progressive Student Alliance marched up the stairs in Andy Holt Tower and into Chancellor Jimmy Cheek's office with a petition and a paper light bulb in hand, symbolizing a "big idea."
Or, rather, two ideas: hiring UT custodian Missy Murray back after what they considered a controversial termination, and providing livable wages for all campus workers.
The PSA students sought the attention of the Chancellor, who was unavailable at the time of their visit. Instead, they read their petition aloud to the administrators present.
Spearheaded by Robert Naylor, a junior in global studies, PSA serves as the UT branch of the national United Students Against Sweatshops, a college organization that lobbies for workers' rights issues domestically and internationally.
Last year, Murray spoke out about a number of unfavorable working conditions for UT custodians.
Recently, after taking two days of sick leave, Missy returned to work last week only to be fired on the grounds that she had exceeded her annual sick leave allowance by 2.6 hours.
"Usually that happens if you miss some time, but her boss made a really arbitrary decision to say no to letting her use any annual leave, and took it as leave without pay," Naylor said. "That's the reason they're firing her.
"It's pretty obvious to us and to Missy and to the other campus workers that this is a retaliation for her speaking out."
Naylor said 23 percent of UT employees make less than a living wage. A UT Faculty Senate study conducted in the 2010-11 academic year defined a living wage in Knoxville in 2010 as $12.02 an hour plus benefits.
The present base pay for UT facilities workers is $8.50 an hour.
"We think it's perfectly reasonable to ask the Chancellor pay a living wage," Naylor said.
Brandon Cartagena, an undecided sophomore and PSA community liaison, emphasized the importance of addressing the issue's long-term and immediate concerns.
"This campaign is not just a campaign about raising people's wages," Cartagena said. "It's also a campaign about changing the culture on our campus. I was one of the many UT students that had no idea what was going on with our campus workers ... we want that culture to change entirely. We want there to be an open, interactive relationship between campus workers and students."
In the past, the living wage movement was a far more influential campaign, even raising the wage for campus workers by $1. United Campus Workers, a labor union that represents some 1,400 employees, has also achieved smaller raises every year.
But support, Naylor says, has yet to come from the administration, despite progress at other universities.
"We're not the first living wage campaign," Naylor said. "There's been campaigns at Harvard (and) at William and Mary, that have been won and that living wages are now a part of the policy there and things worked out really well for people."
According to U.S. News and World Report, Harvard is the 2nd-best "national university" in the country; William and Mary was ranked No. 32.
"One thing about the Top 25 initiative is that we're trying to have the best faculty and staff," Naylor said. "But I don't think the Chancellor understands that you need to have workers that are respected and workers that are paid well to have the best workers on our campus.
"People just deserve respect, too."
PSA plans to continue delivering letters until the Chancellor schedules an appointment to meet with them.
"Either we'll celebrate our victory or we'll be forced to move forward with our next steps," Naylor said.
The alliance's letter demanded a response from Cheek by Friday, September 13th at 5 p.m.
"We need to have a sense of community on our campus," Cartagena said. "If everything is segregated, we're not really a campus. We're just divided."
PSA meetings are every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in Room 53A of HSS.