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University of Minnesota Workers Strike and Win Gains

by Brad Sigal |
November 10, 2003
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Striker speaking surrounded by picket signs.
AFSCME Local 3800 President Phyllis Walker speaks to the press during the strike at a rally of strikers in front of the U of M Administration Building, Morrill Hall. (Fight Back! News/Brad Sigal)
Strikers march on the St. Paul campus - all bundled up and striding smartly.
Students march up big stairs to prepare a sit-in in the admin bldg.
Wordy sign held by striker
2 women strikers
Upper right:
Strikers march on the St. Paul campus. (Fight Back! News/Brad Sigal)
Upper left:
Students march into the Administration Building to begin their sit-in in support of clerical workers. (Fight Back! News/Brad Sigal)
Lower right:
Striking University of Minnesota clerical workers rally in front of the administration building. Workers demanded a living wage from overpaid administrators. (Fight Back! News/Brad Sigal)
Lower left:
Striking clerical workers standing strong. (Fight Back! News/Brad Sigal)

Minneapolis, MN - "After striking for 15 days, we came away with a stronger, fighting union and we won some real gains for clerical workers at the University of Minnesota," said Phyllis Walker, President of AFSCME Local 3800, the clerical workers union at the U of M. Clerical workers at the University of Minnesota went on strike from Oct. 21 to Nov. 4, 2003 against huge health care cuts, a proposed wage freeze and to win key job security provisions. This was the first strike at the University of Minnesota in 60 years.

The University administration hadn't truly negotiated during five months of talks before the strike. The administration was demanding that the union agree to massive cuts, without giving anything the union wanted. The union negotiating committee had no choice but to recommend that clerical workers vote to strike.

The university administration didn't take the union's strike vote seriously. When 63% of the members voted to strike, the administration still didn't negotiate, thinking they would call the union's bluff. Then the union surprised them by going out on strike. The week before the strike, university Vice President Carol Carrier sent a series of intimidating and dishonest emails to clerical workers, trying to smear the union and convince people not to strike. Each day during the strike, University President Robert Bruininks and Vice President Carol Carrier continued this dirty campaign by lying to the press, saying that the strike wasn't affecting 'business as usual' at the University.

But each day the strike stayed strong, slowing down or stopping many University functions and departments, as well as gaining increasing community support. Despite the rhetoric of 'business as usual,' by the second week the social crisis caused by the strike was spiraling out of the administration's control.

AFSCME Local 3800 represents 1,700 clerical workers - 93% of them women - at University of Minnesota campuses in the Twin Cities, Morris and Crookston. Clericals the University of Minnesota-Duluth, who are in Local 3801, were also on strike.

Clerical Workers Stand Up

In this year's contract negotiations, the administration decided to take advantage of the current economic crisis to attack the lowest-paid workers at the U of M. They attacked salaries, proposing a wage freeze. They attacked annual seniority increases (step increases), which are the basis of the union contract. They proposed to double and triple health care costs. And they offered nothing in return that the union was asking for - even if the items had no cost.

Some people warned union members that this was a bad time to strike. They said the economy is bad, the other large unions on campus didn't vote to strike and that the University had its budget cut by the new Republican Governor Pawlenty. People came up with all kinds of reasons why low-paid workers shouldn't stand up when they were under attack.

But Local 3800 members didn't buy it. As AFSCME 3800 activist Neo Rowan put it, "It's never a 'good time' to go on strike - but it was necessary. There was no other option. The union gives us a collective voice instead of everyone independently complaining and feeling isolated."

The union refused to accept the administration's argument that it had no money for clerical workers, pointing out that even though the university's budget was cut by the state, it still has literally billions of dollars in the bank, and a tiny fraction of that money could pay for step increases and health care cost increases for clerical workers. In one important union meeting, AFSCME 3800 Vice President Marie Milsten Fiedler pointed out, "There is a distribution crisis, not a budget crisis, at the U of M." This became one of the union's main slogans during the strike; it resonated broadly and put the administration on the defensive.

The union made a flyer listing over 60 top university administrators who make more money than Minnesota's governor. They showed that administrative positions that pay over $100,000 have ballooned in the past 10 years. The union mocked President Bruininks call for low-paid workers to 'share the pain,' when he makes $360,000 per year and gets to live in a mansion for free. The union drove home the fact that there is money at the University that could be spent on the lowest-paid workers - but instead is spent on lavish salaries for top administrators.

When the union began organizing for a strike, it became clear that clerical workers were ready to fight back. Hundreds of low-paid clerical workers made great personal sacrifices against great odds - giving up over two weeks of pay - to stand up against disrespect from one of the largest employers in the state. Union picket captain Kelly Zimmerscheid said, "We have to be proactive when negotiations don't get what we want. It was worth the sacrifice. I wouldn't have done it any other way. When injustice happens to the lowest-paid area of the workforce, if we can't stand up for ourselves, then who can?"

Clerical workers who went on strike were transformed by the experience. According to another picket captain, Jared Cruz, "Being out with my co-workers on the picket line was a life-changing experience. We all got to know each other, we broke down our isolation and realized that together we have power to make change. None of us will be the same after this."

When clerical workers went on strike, it sparked a broader social movement at the University. The union consciously organized to help build that broader movement for workers' rights and social justice.

Support Committee Played a Key Role

To organize support among other unions, as well as among professors, students and the community outside of the University, the union formed the Labor & Community Support Committee before the strike started.

The Support Committee was very successful in organizing broad support for the striking workers. Members of the committee organized hundreds of professors to move their classes off-campus in support of the strike, so they and their students wouldn't have to cross the picket lines. Over 4,000 students attended classes off-campus during the strike.

Students from the Support Committee organized several important protests before and during the strike. In the second week of the strike, over 70 students organized a sit-in at President Bruininks's office in Morrill Hall. It was the first sit-in at Morrill Hall since the anti-apartheid student movement in the early 1980's.

Students sat in for three days, demanding that Bruininks return to negotiations and settle a fair contract with the clerical workers. Hundreds more students and supporters rallied outside Morrill Hall, making a ton of noise to support the students sitting-in and to stop business as usual.

The administration was so rattled by the noisy protests that they threatened to get a noise injunction against the union, so that all the union picket lines would have to be silent. But it was the student protests making noise, not the union, so the administration couldn't do anything about it! This type of support from outside of the union was key in breaking down President Bruininks.

He threatened to arrest the students on the third day of their sit-in if they stayed in Morrill Hall past 6:00 p.m. Then, a few hours before that time, President Bruininks backed down. Instead of arresting the student protesters, he suddenly agreed to return to the negotiating table with the union and said there were proposals he was willing to negotiate.

Andrew Hamilton, one of the student protest organizers, explained his view on Bruininks's sudden move back to negotiations in the midst of the student sit-in: "I definitely think the student actions were successful, but the students who were involved in the sit-in know we were able to have an impact on the University administration only because clerical workers had been out on the picket lines strong for one and a half weeks already. We thought of what we were doing as the concentration of clerical workers' power inside the Administration building, where clerical workers on strike were forbidden from being due to state law. It was not a free-floating student action that moved the University. In the full perspective, that was one visible point where things came to a head, but it was by no means the most important thing that happened. The union won the strike, and some student supporters were able to do some important work along the way."

Concrete Gains

When the union and the administration returned to the table that weekend, they reached a tentative agreement after two all-night negotiating sessions. The agreement still was not what the union wanted, but the administration was forced to give in to the union on its top priority proposal for job security - salary protection for laid off workers when they get rehired. They were also forced to let the clerical workers keep the Rule of 75, an important job security provision and layoff benefit for long-term employees - and a provision that the administration had already taken away from all other University workers. The union kept annual step increases in the contract. The union also won a contribution to a pre-tax health care account and won about $250,000 more in money for wages than in the administration's previous offers, including a 4% salary increases for the long-term employees who normally don't get increases.

"We didn't get everything we need to have a livable wage and affordable health care, but we got enough to end the strike and go back to work. We won one battle in an ongoing fight. Next round of contract negotiations, they will know they can't run over clerical workers in AFSCME Local 3800," said Local 3800 President Phyllis Walker. "Through the strike, we built a coalition of workers, students and professors that will continue the fight after the strike. And most importantly, we transformed the union by going on strike. Now we have hundreds of members who know that they are the union and that by standing together and fighting, we can accomplish great things."