U of M feels political pressure to end strikeby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
The University of Minnesota AFSCME strike is bringing pressure down on the university from state legislators, political candidates and even student hunger strikers. The university remains intent to hold out on merging step increases and cost-of living raises for the more than 3,000 workers.
Minneapolis, Minn. — The past legislative session showered the University of Minnesota with a 12 percent funding increase compared to the last state budget bill.
It was a session in which legislators, freed by years of relative austerity, wanted to account for any previous harm done to the state supported education systems.
For the U of M, that meant $175 million in new money. Now, says Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, it's time for the university to share the largesse.
"If I had one message today for President Bruininks and the Regents, it would be don't squander that good will with this strike," Hornstein said. "Don't squander that good will by not giving these workers the just wages and conditions they need."
Hornstein joined state Sen. John Marty and Patricia Torres-Ray, calling on the university to settle the strike.
The strikers have already garnered similar support from other legislators -- all DFLers -- including House Speaker Margaret Kelliher, Tom Rukavina, the chair of the house higher education finance committee, Lynden Carlson, the chair of the house finance committee, Linda Berglin, Jeanne Poppe and Mary Murphy.
Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate have appeared at strike rallies as did Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of presidential candidates John Edwards. Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama cancelled a meeting by his campaign at the U because of the strike.
Sen. Marty says his support for the strikers stems from his dismay over a budget provision from the Legislature that allowed a 3.25 percent wage increase for all state employees that is not being passed on to the university AFSCME workers.
"I don't think the Legislature wants to micromanage how the university sets its budgets," Marty said. "We're just saying at a certain point, there are poor decisions being made here and it's not fair ones."
The university is offering AFSCME workers a 2.25 percent wage increase on top of automatic 2 percent step raises.
Other legislators remember the university's appropriation in a different light. Rather than a guarantee of higher wage percentages for all employees, Rep. Connie Ruth, R-Owatonna, says keeping tuition down was the Legislature's priority.
"By far the most testimony we heard was to lower tuition," Ruth recalls. "Our young people are having a very difficult time trying to pay off their loans, and so we wanted to give as substantial increase as possible to our colleges -- our higher education institutions -- so we could get the tuition down."
The university says state money pays one-third or less of the salaries for the striking workers. Some AFSCME employees receive virtually no state money. The rest is from tuition and other sources.
University spokesman Dan Wolter maintains the university does comply with the higher wages granted state employees, but only when the step increases are included -- a plan the union rejects.
"The spending plan we sent to the Legislature included that 3.25 percent raise across all of our employee groups," Wolter said. "That is something that we have abided by, and are abiding by with this AFSCME increase."
Earlier this year, the university boasted that its efforts to attract and retain faculty is paying off. The U of M's rank of average faculty salaries among comparable universities rose from fourth to third in the past year. Wolter says the university isn't taking money from one pool of employees to pay others.
"These are the people who are teaching our students, these are the people who are curing diseases and searching for those cures, and doing a variety of other research things that enhance our quality of life. So we have to be competitive in that regard," Wolter said. "I would certainly dispute anyone who would suggest we are not competitive when it comes to the wages paid to our AFSCME employees."
The university intends to go to the next legislative session with a $238 million bonding request. At their last meeting, the Regents were prevented from formally approving the bonding request by AFSCME strike supporters who forced the meeting to end early.