Two weeks into a workers' strike at the University of Minnesota, a group of students has jumped on board with a strike of its own -- a hunger strike.
On Monday, 13 students, a professor and another supporter of the protest began starving themselves (drinking only water and juice) in solidarity with the strikers, a demonstration which they said they would continue until a settlement is reached between the university and the labor union representing the university's clerical, technical and health care workers. They were joined on Wednesday by a planned 30 or more students who pledged to fast for a 24-hour period.
"We've been pushed to take a more somber approach to force the administration to listen," said Sofi Shank, a freshman at the university who is helping to organize the student response. The move comes after an earlier attempt to make the university listen -- when 75 to 100 students stormed a Board of Regents meeting on Sept. 7 -- ended in five arrests.
The student-led hunger strike is not being coordinated by the union, Council 5 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, although the student organizers are being housed in the same church as the one being used as a headquarters for the strike committee, according to Jennifer Lovaasen, a spokeswoman for AFSCME. In other labor disputes, students have organized hunger strikes with the tacit support of the union, although such cooperation -- between two groups whose backgrounds and goals historically have been at odds -- is never guaranteed.
In this case, the increased visible role of students comes as workers' participation in the strike is gradually waning. According to the university's count, which tallies the number of employees who show up for work each day, a little over 29 percent of unionized workers appeared to be on strike on Tuesday, down somewhat from a third at the beginning, according to spokesman Daniel Wolter. That works out to 900 to 950 workers out of 3,126, he said, although he expects more to report for work a week from Friday when health benefits discontinue for those who will not have come to work since the strike began. Shank said that such counts leave out the possibility of workers who stay home without coming to the picket line.
Shank recognizes that members of the union might potentially be wary of students' involvement in their dispute, or "nervous about this technique." They don't want students to "damage their house on behalf of them," she said. Lovaasen seemed concerned, but only about the students' well-being: "We're grateful for their support."
The university, for its part, views the hunger strike as "theatrics" by a "cadre of activists looking for a cause, and this is their cause," according to Wolter.
The strike began on Sept. 5 after an intense negotiating session over a dispute in wages. The union has demanded both the standard "step" increase, which rewards workers with increased pay for longevity, as well as raises to keep pace with inflation. The university views both types of pay as "real money," which has led to competing numbers and competing claims about fair pay. The university's original offer, which would apply to the 94 percent of employees still eligible for step increases, would increase employees' pay each year by 4.25 to 4.9 percent, for the two years of the contract. The other 6 percent would receive lump-sum payments in lieu of step increases.
The university has since offered an additional $300-a-year increase as a lump sum (or $600 for the 6 percent of workers not eligible for step increases), which the union also rejected on Friday on the basis that it did not qualify as a step increase. "Figuratively, we’re still at the table because we never left," Wolter said.
The union does not include step increases in calculations about wage increases to match inflation. "What I want people to know is that this is about wages and benefits for university workers, and the typical striker earns $34,000 and qualifies for food stamps to support a family of four. Today is Day 11 of the strike, and frankly, we’re hungry for a settlement," Lovaasen said.
Although the university has had to make adjustments in staffing, most services are still operational. The one exception is a number of professors who continue to hold classes off campus out of solidarity with the strikers -- an act that violates university policy. "We’re not known for a rigid level of discipline with faculty members," Wolter conceded, although he said there were discussions about the possibility of financial repercussions for some departments or temporarily replacing instructors. Some students, he said, have had to drop classes because of the inconvenience of attending class at a church or theater.