Protesters, bomb threat bring chaos to U of Mby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
Students and others supporting striking University of Minnesota workers shut down the monthly Board of Regents meeting Friday. About 100 demonstrators filled the regents' meeting room and noisily demanded a settlement to the walkout by four AFSCME unions representing 3,100 employees.
The university maintains campus operations are functioning near normal, but there are sporadic reports of problems for students and other employees at several U of M campuses.
Minneapolis — University President Robert Bruininks and the Board of Regents had just completed publicly recognizing outstanding faculty when 100 union supporters filed into the room.
Regent Chair Patricia Simmons recessed the meeting when it became clear the protesters ignored her efforts to quiet their shouts and chants. Police arrested five people who attempted to block the regents' exit. Sophomore psychology student Lauren Siegal helped organize the protest.
"They need the workers. The workers are the backbone of our campus. So we need to be here and remind them business is not as usual," said Siegal.
The crowd of mostly students eventually calmed down, and the regents attempted to restart the meeting.
Regent Steve Hunter, the secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO, confessed to being in a difficult position. He says the university needs to be competitive to attract top faculty and administration, which he says is the engine that drives the university's progress. But he called the support workers the oil in that engine.
"We have a problem right now. Our support staff are not happy. They're not working. This is hurting them. This is hurting the university," said Hunter.
"There's a necessity for us to get back to the table. I know in my conversations with the president he wants to get a settlement," Hunter added. "I'm hoping we can get one as soon as possible. I'm hoping we can get this contract behind us -- that we can get a fair offer on the table that can be ratified and heal the wounds that have been created in this community."
The protestors began chanting again when it became clear the regents would not discuss the strike further. So Chairwoman Simmons adjourned the meeting.
On the Twin Cities campus this week, the strike forced administrators to reduce operations at the dental and veterinary clinics. At least two registrar's offices were closed. Emergency 911 dispatch services were shut down and transferred to the city of Minneapolis.
Some delivery services refused to cross the picket lines, so UPS packages and some food items must be handled by university managers.
There are similar disruptions on the U's other campuses. Kathy Heltzer, a faculty member in the Department of Social Work at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, says three of the four people who work in her department are on the picket line.
"Just everything a support person would do, obviously, now as a faculty member I've got to pick up the slack and do that. And for a short period of time we can sort of muddle through," said Heltzer. "But if we're going to do this for any period of time, that's going to have a dramatic affect on our ability to do our other work at the university."
Fine arts student Callie O'Neil is in her last year at UMD. She says the workers' absence is an added burden for students.
"It's just making everything harder. Especially during the first week because that's when you have to add or drop a class. That's really important for you, to know if that's going to affect whether you can graduate on time -- and that's the person who knows," said O'Neil.
In addition to the strike-related disruptions, officials evacuated the nursing school and the College of Pharmacy and blocked several streets on the Twin Cities campus to investigate an e-mailed bomb threat. No bomb was found. Officials don't believe the threat is related to the strike.
A number of faculty members have refused to cross the picket lines, and held classes off campus in defiance of administration orders to conduct classes as usual.
University spokesman Dan Wolter says officials will check to see how widespread the problem is.
"It's not only a violation of university policy, but of state law, to take their courses off campus," Wolter said. "It's also important to note the university obviously has certain liability if we're shipping students around the metro area for classes."
Union leaders say they plan to picket in front of the Metrodome during the second Gopher football game of the season Saturday.
- All Things Considered, 09/07/2007, 5:20 p.m.