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University of Minnesota Workers: Fed Up and Fighting Back

by J Burger |
July 1, 2003
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Minneapolis, MN - A sharp battle is under way between University of Minnesota workers and a university administration that's pushing an agenda of layoffs, benefit cuts and a wage freeze.

The University of Minnesota got $187 million less than requested from the state government for the years 2004-2005. In response to the less than desired budget, the bosses at the top of the administration laid off long term employees, cut programs and raised tuition 14% this year. That said, the U of M would still receive more than $1 billion from the state.

Top administrators are shielding their $150,000 to $400,000 salaries from the serious cuts, yet they demand a wage freeze from the unionized and non-union staff. They are also asking the employees to pick up big costs for health insurance, which essentially adds up to still greater pay cuts.

The contracts for workers in four University unions - three AFSCME locals and Teamsters local 320 - expired this year. The unions are standing together to resist the proposed changes.

Angry workers are mobilizing against the potential cuts. "Management is not happy just trying to deal with less money from the state, they are coming after long-term employees, anyone who is not the favorite of management and, in short, our unions," said Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME Local 3800 and co-chair of the clerical workers negotiating committee.

"What the administration is asking of us is unreasonable and we cannot stand for it," Walker continued. "The health care costs alone are permanent. The U Plan was not in crisis. The administration saw an opportunity to shift the burden to our backs, and we are not going to take it."

University bureaucrats have been telling the Board of Regents (the governing body for the university) the same old 'everyone must share the pain' story since the beginning of the year.

"What is so troubling to us is the way that management lies and manipulates people," said Marie Milsten-Fiedler, a member of the clerical negotiating committee and long-term employee from the American Studies department. "We have a long-term employee who has served the university for over 20 years. Her department is looking at the mandated budget cuts - they decide to 'eliminate' her position. Then we find out from a non-union person in her department that the director received this year a $40,000 bonus. But this person is going onto the layoff list."

Walker explained that the union is determined to win contract language that will protect workers' jobs. "We do not have hiring priority. The union is proposing that if clerical workers are laid off, they will be rehired into a job at the University if they are qualified. Currently, the University seldom hires qualified internal applicants. They would rather hire from outside. Hiring laid off clerical workers off the layoff list won't cost the University."

At the June 12 regents meeting, associate vice-president Frank Cerra, who earns almost $400,000 a year, argued that if costs are not kept down there would have to be more layoffs. The University has laid off more than 500 employees this year. As this threat to the employees is repeated over and over, some of the unions are calling the administration's bluff.

The University bosses need to get the union contracts done by year end so they can hold open enrollment for 'U Plan' (the University of Minnesota health plan). The unions are being asked to shoulder the costs of Govenor Pawlenty's budget cuts. "We are going to fight together and stop the takeback. Our jobs are the lowest paid jobs. Our members cannot afford to accept a wage freeze, health care cuts and lost job security," said Walker.

Chop from the Top

Pressure continues to build as unions are gearing up for a big protracted fight. Fat-cat administrators have no right to run around and saying "we all have to share the pain."

"There has been a 125% increase in top administrators that receive over $100,000 a year salary. These salaries need to be cut back as part of the budget solution. We need to chop from the top," said Milsten-Fiedler. "The level of pain top administrators feel pales to the harsh conditions clerical workers are looking at facing with these cuts."

The president of the University of Minnesota makes $350,000 a year and has a free 20-room house with cleaning and maintenance staff. This spring, it was revealed in a report to the regents that the president spent over $100,000 on renovating his house. Many of the top officials, department by department, bring down six digit salaries, plus perks. Many of these officials have the Cadillac version of health benefits, while the vast majority of workers at the U of M are losing ground.

Massive spending on buildings continues at the university, despite the scandals surrounding recent construction and renovation. More than $1 billion was spent on 'beautification' efforts over the last few years. The state of Minnesota also gave the University $48.3 million for new research buildings.

"If you lay people off, how can you have money for new buildings?" asked Walker. The U laid off staff and raised tuition to the double digits, and yet is not prioritizing its core elements - people."

"We are coming to the conclusion that we cannot live with management proposals in negotiations," said Walker.

Determined not to take bad contracts, no matter how they have to fight it, the unions are gearing up for a battle.

"We might be asking our members to authorize a strike, or we might not, but we know we are going to fight these cuts and mobilize our members to take back the power they have," Walker declared.