Union workers go on strike at University of Minnesotaby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
Union workers presented a visible front on University of Minnesota campuses on Wednesday, the first day of a strike. About 3,500 clerical, technical and health care workers walked off the job over an impasse with the university over wage increases in the next two-year contract. Union leaders claim significant disruptions in work operations as positions went vacant. University officials maintain the affect of the strike is minimal.
St. Paul, Minn. — The heavy September heat greeted union workers walking picket lines on the Twin Cities campus. Picket captain Linda Kingman, a secretary at the university's dental school, increased the temperature even more as she carried a sign along Washington Avenue.
"If President Bruininks can get a 10-percent raise on what he makes, that is annually more than what most of us make total. Why can't they come up with at least the 3.25 (percent) that the Legislature allocated to the university to give to their employees this year?" she said.
The four unions out on strike want a base salary increase more than the 2.25 to 2.5 percent offered by the university. Each percent increase equals about $1.1 million from university coffers. The university maintains the offer is fair considering most of the employees get an additional automatic 2-percent step increase.
Third year medical student Josh Lackner is not a union member, but came in support of the workers.
"A university, especially the University of Minnesota -- and we like to regard Minnesota as a humane state -- needs to be a place where people feel comfortable and people don't feel tension and anger. It's just not an acceptable situation," he said.
Workmen were still installing phone lines at strike headquarters in the University Baptist Church as AFSCME organizer Erika Zurawski tried to accommodate picketers at about two dozen sites around campus.
"We've been getting more fliers and copies made. We've been getting picket signs distributed. We've been sending people out to make sure water's getting to the picket lines and making sure folks that volunteer know where to go. We're making buttons. We're starting phoning here as soon as our phone lines are in. There's work to do everywhere," she said.
Daniel Libby's work typically has him performing administrative duties in the McNamara Alumni Center. He's spending the first day of the strike serenading picketers on University Avenue.
As she watched chanting strikers nearby, freshman student Cheyenne Davison imagines the strikers affect will grow as the jobs that support instructors continue to go unfilled.
"Once people really get into their schedule and the homework loads really starts to pile on, it might be a problem then," she suggested. But right now it isn't because everybody's just trying to find their classes."
The strike brought out supportive appearances by several political candidates, including U.S. Senate contenders Michael Cirisi, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, and Al Franken, who briefly invoked his Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley to boost the strikers.
"I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it I need a living wage," he said.
The union's noon rally in the middle of campus included a surprise appearance by Elizabeth Edwards, wife of democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.
"You absolutely need to have that cost-of-living increase," she said. "It's a statement by the university that they believe in your dignity. If they respect you and believe in your dignity, they're going to provide you with this raise."
The first day of any strike is typically an exercise in strategic message control by both sides and the university AFSCME strike is no exception.
"The early indications are that this is following the trend of the last strike, which was a very minimal impact," said university spokesman Dan Wolter. "The university is fully prepared to reassign workers, to bring on temporary workers, and to do whatever we need to minimize the impact on students, faculty and staff."
Wolter confirms the bursar's office on the West Bank and St. Paul campuses closed because they lacked employees. The campus 911 dispatch had to be transferred to the city of Minneapolis, and the veterinary clinic is reduced to emergency and critical care only. At the same time he estimates as many as two-thirds of the union AFSCME workers crossed the picket line and came to work. That number is strongly refuted by union leaders who say three quarters or their workers are off the job.
No new talks are scheduled. Union officials say they plan to hold rallies on campus every day this week.