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U of MN Workers Demand Return of $6 Million in Health Care Costs

Management Overestimated Costs But Won't Lower Rates
by Brad Sigal |
February 16, 2005
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Minneapolis, MN - "Workers at the University of Minnesota are being ripped off. The administration is stealing $6 million from us and we want it back," said Kelly Ryan, an executive board member of AFSCME Local 3800, the clerical workers' union at the University of Minnesota. The unions are fighting to get back $6 million that the administration is overcharging workers for health care. They have come together in a new coalition called University Unions United.

What Happened

As a result of the clerical workers strike at the University of Minnesota in 2003, management agreed to sit down with the union again in 2004 to review health care costs for 2003 and 2004, to see if the university's cost estimates turned out to be accurate. At the reopening of negotiations in 2004, management called on their health care go-to guy, Dann Chapman, to try to explain the university's math. Chapman spoke for a long time about the complexities of providing health care for workers. But after cutting through the talk, it became clear that the university had overestimated health care costs substantially. It also became clear that the administration planned to keep charging workers inflated rates, even though the rates were not justified by the actual costs of the health care they would get.

In 2003 management had projected a 13.5% annual increase in health care costs for the years 2003 to 2005. But after one year of the contract, their estimate was 5.5% too high. The difference between their inflated estimate and reality was $6 million. This meant that management wouldn't need to implement most of the planned cost increases for 2005 - and they would still come out even. If they did implement the planned increases, they would be profiting off of workers' health care.

It took repeated questioning by union chief negotiator Gladys McKenzie to finally get a straight answer from management that this is what had happened. Chapman finally admitted that they had estimated costs too high. After more questioning to find out what management was planning to do with this extra money that they were taking from workers, Chapman and management negotiator Patti Dion refused to specify where the money is going, saying it was impossible to track money once it goes into the U's general fund.

With these revelations, the clerical union formally requested to renegotiate the health care rates for 2005. But management refused to even discuss it. Management negotiator Patty Dion simply stated that they had signed a two-year contract, and management saw no reason to reopen negotiations halfway through. "It is a slap in the face to the workers at the U that Patty Dion said there's no reason to reopen negotiations, right after she admitted that their estimates were too high and they were overcharging workers," said Steff Yorek, a clerical negotiating committee member.

United Fightback

Since management wouldn't agree to renegotiate health care rates, the unions decided to organize a campaign to publicly pressure the administration to give back the workers' money. This campaign has been carried out through a new coalition called University Unions United (UUU). The coalition has gathered petitions, distributed flyers, written letters and received prominent coverage in the campus newspaper, the Minnesota Daily. The unions also organized picketing and flyering at administration-organized healthcare informational events.

Administration's Disinformation Campaign

The union campaign put the administration on the defensive. To try to do damage control, the university again called on Dann Chapman to write an editorial in the Minnesota Daily newspaper. They also created a web page to attack the unions and to claim, "There is no $6 million." The strategy of the administration has been to belittle the unions, saying that the unions 'just don't understand' the complexity of the health care plan and the university budget.

Unions Respond

The unions responded by creating a flyer that debunked the university web page disinformation line-by-line. Activists in all the unions are gathering petitions from union members, as well as from other workers who are not in unions. According to Marie Milsten-Fiedler, vice-president of AFSCME Local 3800, "We're showing that by the workers being together we are going to be able to impact what the U does with our health care. The petition isn't just for union members but for the entire U community because everyone who works at the U is affected by health care. This helps as we move toward negotiations, because the unions are working together and mobilizing our allies, which shows solidarity to the employer."

Moving Toward 2005 Negotiations

The clerical workers strike in 2003 caught the administration off guard, and was the first strike at the University of Minnesota in 60 years. But it was only the AFSCME clericals that went on strike in 2003 - the other AFSCME locals and the Teamsters did not strike. The UUU coalition and the health care campaign are putting the administration on notice that the unions are united heading into negotiations in the spring.

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