Wage War

On the eve of a new school year, a historic strike threatens to throw the U of M into chaos

Barring an unlikely last-minute deal, classes at the University of Minnesota will start next week with about 3,500 clerical, technical, and health-care workers poised to strike, throwing orientation, registration, and other back-to-school rituals into upheaval.

Workers belonging to the three AFSCME divisions voted overwhelmingly last Thursday to reject the University's offer to raise their pay by 2.25 percent, or $850 a year for the typical striker, who makes $34,000 annually. The workers contend that their wages in recent years have not kept up with inflation, which is projected to be about 3.5 percent next year.

"It stinks," says Linda Kingman, 59, a secretary in the oral surgery department. "With that contract, I'll retire when I'm 72. Shoot me now."

With gas prices hovering near $3 a gallon, workers say their salary doesn't stretch as far as it used to. Steve Schaus, an 11-year employee of the U, says that while he makes $35,000 a year—up from $20,000 in 1996—his family of four qualifies for food stamps.

"It's not just about me," Schaus says. "I look at my co-worker who's a single mother with two children trying to get by. Or another co-worker dealing with cancer and mounting medical bills. It's why we have collective bargaining."

Adding to the workers' frustrations are generous pay hikes awarded to U of M administrators in recent years. President Robert Bruininks recently signed a new contract that gives him a 10 percent raise next year and 7.5 percent the following year. Since 2003, his salary has grown in excess of $100,000, to more than $450,000.

"The money is there, and the University has made a conscious choice," says Phyllis Walker, president of the clerical union, which represents about 1,800 employees. "The administration chose to reward themselves with huge windfalls while keeping the frontline staff struggling to make ends meet."

School officials counter that workers' salaries have risen steadily over the past decade, and are in keeping with what the market bears. "The wages for our employees are generous," says Patti Dion, a school spokeswoman. "AFSCME employees and the University president compete in different markets."

The key bone of contention is whether annual 2 percent raises that most AFSCME workers at the U have been guaranteed since 1994, known as "step" increases, should be considered part of across-the-board pay hikes, which the workers consider to be a cost-of-living adjustment.

"The University is the only employer in the state that can't understand the difference between a step increase and a cost-of-living increase," says Walker, pointing to the fact that earlier this year, Gov. Tim Pawlenty agreed to give state workers a 3.25 percent raise in addition to step increases.

This spring, the state Legislature raised the school's budget by $150 million over the next two years. Part of the reason was to provide money for raises, says State Rep. Lyndon Carlson (DFL-Crystal).

"There was a clear request from the University to be able to address an increase of 3.25 percent," says Carlson, who chairs the House Finance Committee. "I interpreted that as a salary enhancement above the step increases."

In October 2003, after the administration sought to eliminate step increases, the clerical workers struck for 15 days, managing in the end to keep their pay structure intact. It was the first strike at the University in more than 60 years.

That experience inspired an alliance between technical, clerical, and health-care workers. Now, for the first time, the three unions are bargaining with the administration collectively.

"They're stronger because they're together," says labor historian and Macalester College professor Peter Rachleff. "The University is not able to play one group against the other. It's not able to buy off or intimidate one group and use them to cross the picket lines or threaten to cross the picket lines of others."

Greg Knoblauch, a veterinary technician who has worked at the school for 10 years, says that because the University is funded with taxpayer money, it has an added obligation to pay a fair wage and bargain in good faith.

"I don't work for Enron; I work for a public employer," Knoblauch says. "These administrators are public servants. They should be accountable for their actions."

 
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