Earlier this week at a rally whose size was estimated as anywhere from 600 to several thousand (depending on who you asked) cheering striking workers, students and faculty, were greeted by Elizabeth Edwards, wife of presidential candidate John Edwards, who spoke in support of University of Minnesota clerical, technical and health care workers, The rally was one of the high points in the first day of the strike.
“I like my job and I like the university atmosphere,” said striker Sarah Wolf at that rally. “But just because I like my job doesn’t mean I should be compensated less than any other state worker.”
Clerical, technical and health workers walked off their jobs Wednesday at the University of Minnesota's five campuses after last-ditch contract talks broke down late the night before.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800 represents about 17 percent of the employees in the University of Minnesota system — some 3,500 workers responsible for fixing computers, distributing paychecks, assisting dentists and veterinarians, and many other jobs. The striking AFSCME workers are receiving widespread support from other union workers, students, and faculty at the univeristy.
Although administrators at the University of Minnesota have found the money to give themselves fat pay raises, they are demanding clerical, health-care and technical workers at the University accept a meager 2.25% wage increase. With the cost of living estimated to increase by 3.5% annually (i.e. inflation), a 2.25% raise amounts to a pay cut!
The administration has attempted to spin this as a 4.25% increase by adding in step increases - which are not received by all workers and do not impact the starting salaries of future workers.
Phyllis Walker, president of Local 3800 told Fight Back News, “The University can try to play fuzzy math all they want, but it doesn’t change the facts. Someone starting a new job at the University today makes 5% less after inflation than someone who started in 2003. Our strike is not just about fair wages for ourselves, it’s an issue of economic justice for all workers in Minnesota. The University explains its salary decisions by saying it follows the market. As the third largest employer in this state, the University has the power to set the market, and they have systematically worked to push wages down for frontline workers. We are standing up for our standard of living.”
Jody Ebert, member of AFSCME 3937 and a university alumna stated, “I went to the fair yesterday and brought with me, 'I Support U of M Workers' buttons. Anyone who commented on the button got one. I was out of them in the first 30 minutes! Everyone I talked to supported us in our effort to get a fair wage increase. When workers are denied a livable wage, the economy suffers."
Clerical worker Sandi Sherman made the point, "For me it's a question of dignity. The University of Minnesota administration has shown disrespect to workers organized by AFSCME since they decided to form unions. This contract offer is just the latest slap in the face, and I for one feel that I have no choice but to stand up and say this is unacceptable."
Cherrene Horazuk, AFSCME 3800 vice-president said, "Working people around the country have seen their wages fall in relation to inflation while corporate executives reap huge salaries and bonuses off the backs of their employees. President Bruininks and senior administrators now want to implement this system of haves and have-nots at the U of M. This is a public institution, and our taxes should not be used to enrich a few administrators while impoverishing frontline workers."
“While our paychecks shrink, top administrators are enjoying huge raises,” said Phyllis Walker, president of Clerical Local 3800.
For example, Minnisota president Bob Bruininks, who makes $450,000 annually (and gets a free mansion too!) recently managed to get a 17.5% raise the next two years, on top of the $100,000 increase awarded him since 2003.
AFSCME Local 3800 president Phyllis Walker warned the strike will slow things down initially and eventually could bring some departments "to a standstill."
According to Fight Back News, the strike is already having a profound impact. Just a few examples are:
Veterinary Medicine – St. Paul Campus:
The Veterinary Teaching Hospital and Clinics are virtually shut down and are only accepting emergent patients. At least 50% of the University of Minnesota’s veterinary technicians walked off work today, leaving some 15 specialty clinics and the animal hospital open only for emergency calls. Clinic appointments scheduled through the week of Sept. 17 have been canceled due to the lack of technicians to provide care. Inexperienced students are being asked to take over technical responsibilities.
School of Dentistry – East Bank Minneapolis Campus:
The school of dentistry clinics were reduced to one floor of clinics. Without AFSCME Local 3260 dental assistants, lab technicians and dental hygienists, two floors of dental clinics in Moos Tower have consolidated to one floor. Healthcare employees interview patients and assist teeth cleaning, as well as fabricate dentures and crowns.
Bursar’s Offices - West Bank Minneapolis Campus and St. Paul Campus:
With the absence of AFSMCE clerical workers, the Bursar's offices on the West bank and St. Paul areas are closed for the duration of the strike.
Anderson and Wilson Libraries - West Bank Minneapolis Campus
Anderson Library is cleared of technical and clerical workers. Anderson holds eight special collections and archives units and is the central office of the MINITEX Library Information Network. Staff at Wilson Library, the main West Bank library, is significantly reduced. No books leave a U of M Library without touching an AFSMCE worker.
911 Dispatchers - Twin Cities Campus:
Without AFSCME police dispatchers, University of Minnesota police cannot handle the computerized dispatch system. Minneapolis dispatchers are also AFSCME and are handling 911 calls for the U of M only. Normal dispatch operations cannot be fulfilled.
Facilities Management - Twin Cities Campus
The facilities management emergency call center is cleared of employees. The call center answers problems with building maintenance such as elevator malfunctions and electricity failures.
Some instructors are defying the University of Minnesota and moving classes off-campus to show support for striking "U" workers.
Provost E. Thomas Sullivan said in a letter to faculty and staff that university employees who refuse to report to work as directed are considered to be engaged in an illegal sympathy strike.
Paula Rabinowitz, chair of the English department and professor at U of M, told the student newspaper The Badger Herald she chose to hold class off campus at the University Baptist Church — the strike center for the local AFSCME — because she refuses to cross the picket line.
“As a faculty member I feel a responsibility to teach my class as part of the university,” Rabinowitz said. “But I will do it off campus because it tells the students I respect the picket line, and I refuse to cross it.”
The following is from the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Protesters interrupt, stop U regents meeting
By Jeff Shelman, Star Tribune
More than 100 protesters -- many of them students -- interrupted and forced adjournment of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents meeting this morning and five protesters were arrested by university police.
The protesters, supporting striking union workers at the university, entered the room about 9:30 a.m. and stood near the back, when regents chair Patricia Simmons asked members of the board whether they had any questions for university president Robert Bruininks.
At that point, one of the protesters shouted, "We want to know when there's going to be a fair contract for the workers at this university."
Simmons repeatedly pounded on her gavel and called the meeting to order. When the protesters didn't quiet, she called a recess of the board at 9:40 a.m.
That's when several protesters ran and sat arm-in-arm in front of the back door of the regents meeting room that members of the board were going to use to leave the room.
Those protesters were handcuffed by police and moved out of the way and all but one regent left the room. When protesters approached the door, university officers aimed pepper spray at them, but they did not use it.
At 10:25 a.m., the handcuffed protesters were led out of the room by university police.
Five people were arrested for interfering with public property. They were transported to the Hennepin County Jail.
Regent Steven Hunter, who is the secretary/treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, stayed in the room and listened to the protesters.
The regents' meeting was delayed for an hour by the incident, and when they resumed, Hunter gave his views on the strike for about 5 minutes.
When the regents attempted to return to their agenda, protesters who had remained in the room shouted, “Shame on you.”
The chair then adjourned the meeting for the rest of the day.
The university released an e-mail that said in part: "The Board of Regents adjourned its meeting today as a result of the illegal actions of a small, but highly disruptive group of people. The majority of these people were neither students nor employees of the University of Minnesota.
"Freedom of expression is paramount to the fulfillment of the university's educational mission. As citizens, these individuals were provided with the same opportunity to attend and observe the meeting of the Board of Regents as would be afforded anyone. Unfortunately, once afforded this opportunity, these individuals engaged in activities that transcend freedom of expression and were illegal. . . ."
At 11 a.m. today, a rally supporting the workers was held outside of the McNamara Alumni Center. U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken was expected to speak.
Friday marks the third day of the strike at the university by one-third of about 3,150 technical, clerical and health-care workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
The biggest issue is a battle over wages, with union officials unhappy with the university's proposed 2.25 and 2.5 percent raises, saying they don't keep up with inflation. University officials maintain that when service anniversary step increases of 2 percent are considered, the offers are fair.