The union representing some 3,100 clerical, technical and health care workers went on strike Wednesday morning after negotiations with the University of Minnesota broke down at 11 p.m. the night before, eight hours into a last-ditch effort to salvage a persistent wage dispute.
Despite what Eliot Seide, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5, called "a powerful start," as well as significant support from faculty, some students and the independent university media, Minnesota officials said the job action had a "minimal" initial impact and continued rearranging employees and prioritizing services to avoid potential disruptions on campus. Still, a significant number of professors who supported the strike intended to hold classes off campus, in violation of university policy.
From preliminary reports, the university estimated that about two-thirds of AFSCME employees had come to work on Wednesday, the second day of classes this fall. Seide said on Wednesday morning that at least 500 people had picked up picket signs, with "literally thousands" out on strike.
"We didn’t want to strike. Our people like to serve the students of the University of Minnesota," said Seide. "The university would not come up with a proposal that allowed our members to even keep pace with inflation."
The basic disagreement between the parties comes down to wages. While the union maintains that the proposed pay increase does not keep pace with inflation, the university says what makes up an "increase" is a matter of semantics. The university's offer, still on the table, would apply to the 94 percent of employees who haven't reached the top of their pay range and provide at least a 4.25-percent wage increase each year for the next two years.
The problem, as the union sees it, is that the university doesn't distinguish between "step" and other increases. Step increases (about 2 to 2.4 percent) are intended to award employees for longevity as they progress from their initial hiring rate to the final job rate. Separately, the union seeks pay boosts on top of the step increases to help employees match the costs of inflation. The university views both types as "real money" and as a result doesn't distinguish between them.
For the 6 percent of remaining workers not eligible for step increases because they are at the top of their range, the university offered lump-sum payments, which AFSCME found unacceptable. The dispute between the university and the union has not focused on health insurance or other benefits, which include tuition benefits and coverage of 85 percent of medical plan costs for active employees.
AFSCME has also complained that the university is not making use of additional funds appropriated by the state Legislature intended for wage increases. Daniel Wolter, a university spokesman, disputed that allegation. The university received $155 million out of a $189 million budget request, in which the regents sought a 3.25-percent increase in wages for all employee groups. The university's offer of 4.25 percent for AFSCME employees exceeds that, Wolter said.
Clerical workers struck at the university in a 2003 standoff that lasted for 11 days, an experience whose lessons officials are applying this time around. "We're certainly prepared to minimize any impact for a longer-term strike," Wolter said.
The university’s biggest concern was Boynton Health Services, the on-campus clinic, but by Wednesday afternoon no appointments had been canceled. Seven of the campus’s 911 dispatchers are AFSCME employees, but officials rerouted the service to the Minneapolis emergency routing center in anticipation of any disruptions. Still, veterinary service was reduced to emergency care and the bursar's office had to shift resources to continue operating.
Classes were set to continue, but some professors were ready to move their lessons off campus for the duration of the strike. According to Steff Yorek at the AFSCME Local 3800 clerical workers union, strike organizers have accommodated at least 140 classes, representing about 4,000 students, at off-campus locations such as theaters, church meeting rooms and the back rooms of restaurants. There are at least 100 more requests pending.
"Being on campus is crossing the picket line, in my mind," said Katherine Fennelly, a professor of public affairs who chairs the University Senate's Social Concerns Committee. Holding classes off campus "says to students that I respect the rights of workers to strike," she said.
"This strike hits all faculty hard. The people striking are people we know and work with every day. We care about them and their families, and we want the best for them," said Geoffrey Sirc, a professor of English who chairs the Faculty Affairs Committee.
"So even a basic decision like that has faculty feeling very uneasy, torn between duties as faculty regarding students, and allegiances, as good citizens, for unionized workers," Sirc said. "Overlaying all that, of course, is a respect for the administration. I think it's safe to say every faculty member wants this strike settled as quickly and as justly as possible."