UMinn workers suspend strike; send offer to members for voteby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
After 16 days on the picket line, AFSCME union workers have settled their strike against the University of Minnesota. The four striking unions ended a full day of talks Thursday having gained no ground toward the higher wages they sought. The clerical, technical and health care workers will head back to work next week.
Minneapolis — University of Minnesota strikers let go of their picket signs Friday, and came to grips with the reality that their fight is lost.
After 15 hours of negotiations, union leaders emerged with a proposed contract identical to the one they rejected numerous times previously.
The two-year contract offer contains a 2.25 percent cost of living increase for clerical workers, a 2.5 percent for health care workers, plus steps to reward longevity and a $300 lump sum in each year. Workers who don't receive step increases will get an additional $300 in each year.
Gladys McKenzie, chief negotiator for AFSCME, did not hide her bitterness.
"I think the university has tarnished their reputation. I think the university looks mean. I think the university looks unfair," said McKenzie. "I think the university looks more and more like a place that's divided between haves and have-nots, and I don't think that's a good thing for the University of Minnesota we care about so much."
McKenzie referred to the strike as a "war of attrition," and in the end, the union's walkout wasn't sustainable. Nearly two out of three AFSCME workers crossed the picket line and went back to work. McKenzie says it's because they couldn't afford to strike.
"The fact that members didn't walk was built into this strike from the beginning because of the sheer poverty they face, living paycheck to paycheck, people losing their houses," said McKenzie. "I think it's amazing well over 1,000 people stood up, walked out, went on strike and said, 'We can't live with this situation any longer.'"
University officials issued only a written statement from President Robert Bruininks. Bruininks said he is pleased the strike has ended and appreciative of the union's willingness to take this proposal to their membership for a vote.
The strike began when almost three-quarters of the clerical, technical and health care workers voted to reject the university's two-year contract offer that kept pay increases to 2.25 percent a year for most employees.
Picketers maintained a visible presence on campus throughout the strike. Workers and other supporters organized a dozen high-profile rallies. Student demonstrators noisily shut down the Board of Regents' monthly meeting.
More than a dozen students and others staged a hunger strike in sympathy with the striking workers, sending one freshman student to the hospital for treatment for dehydration. Several faculty members taught classes off campus -- at least temporarily -- to honor the picket line.
After all that, the union was forced to take the very contract they held up as unfair and disrespectful. Clerical union president Phyllis Walker views the experience as one that bonded the workers together.
"Rochester, Mankato, Austin and university offices all over the state of Minnesota fought together and joined together," said Walker. "And now our union is so much stronger than it ever was, and now we're really a force to be reconned with."
Another clerical worker, Polly Peterson, says the deal does nothing to inspire her to go back to work on Monday.
"I'm just so frustrated because I expect more from my university. I value this as an institution. I'm an alumnus of this institution. I value the ideals I think it should have, and I'm not finding that as an employer," said Peterson.
The strike lasted one day longer than the 2003 clerical workers strike. The union then ultimately accepted a deal that kept wages flat one year and added 2.25 percent the following year. A one-time $300 payment helped seal that deal as well.
The four unions represent some 3,100 employees on all the university's campuses.
Union members will vote on the contract proposal in early October.
- All Things Considered, 09/21/2007, 5:20 p.m.