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U of M unions preparing for possible strike on first day of classes

by Brad Sigal |
August 16, 2007
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women on bullhorn
Above:
U of M AFSCME negotiating committee co-chair Cherrene Horazuk speaks at a union rally on August 9 as negotiations were about to begin. (Fight Back! News/Brad Sigal)
Giant inflatable rat Marching up stairwell to UM presidents office.Sign:We're worth more. P Walker speaking with tons of "On Strike" signs in background
Left:
File photo: AFSCME Local 3800 President Phyllis Walker speaks to the press during the strike at the University of Minnesota in 2003 at a rally of strikers in front of the U of M Administration Building, Morrill Hall. (Fight Back! News/File photo)
Center:
U of M workers march inside Morrill Hall at the August 8th rally to try to meet with President Bruininks and give him petitions for a decent wage. (Fight Back! News/Brad Sigal)
Right:
U of M AFSCME rally on August 8 in front of Morrill Hall with the 'inflation rat." (Fight Back! News/Brad Sigal)

Minneapolis, MN – Four union locals representing over 3,500 workers at the University of Minnesota are preparing for a strike on the first day of classes for a decent wage increase. On August 10th, the union negotiating committee unanimously recommended that workers reject the U administration’s contract offer and authorize a strike.

According to Cherrene Horazuk, a U of M clerical worker and co-chair of the union negotiating committee, the unions are mobilizing for a quick strike vote to prepare for a strike on the first day of classes on September 4. Horazuk said, “A strike on the first day of classes gives us the maximum impact to pressure the University.”

The unions have waged a campaign for the past few months to win a decent wage increase, talking to hundreds of union members in lunch time meetings. From August 1 through 9, members of U of M AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) organized a series of protests all over the sprawling U of M campus. They demanded a wage increase to catch up to the rate of inflation. The union members’ salaries have lost about 5% of their value compared to inflation since 2002. Meanwhile, the University president’s salary has gained almost 80% in value above the rate of inflation, and all other high-end administrators have also gained salary increases well over the rate of inflation.

The union rallies featured a huge inflatable rat, which the workers dubbed the “inflation rat.” According to Krista Gallagher, a U of M technical worker and AFSCME negotiating committee member, “Our wages keep losing ground to inflation. Our small wage increases have been eaten away by the inflation rate and other cost increases, so this year we brought out the inflation rat to show everyone what we’re dealing with.” The 12-foot tall rat created a stir wherever union members brought it out.

The week of rallies culminated on August 8th in a rally at the administration building, Morrill Hall. After rallying outside, dozens of workers marched into Morrill to deliver hundreds of petitions to U of M President Bruininks, demanding a real wage increase. According to Kelly Ryan, a clerical worker and U of M AFSCME negotiating committee member, “Bruininks wouldn’t come out to meet with us, but we made our voices heard loud and clear. It was powerful for so many workers to march inside to Bruininks’ office.”

After the week of rallies, the U of M AFSCME negotiating committee returned to negotiations on August 9 and 10. On the first morning back in negotiations, the union mobilized rank-and-file members to protest management outside the building where they were meeting. They also brought out the inflation rat one more time.

According to Horazuk, “After being in negotiations more than two months, we went late into the night two days in a row to try to reach an agreement. But management wasn’t ready to take us seriously and give us a decent wage increase. Now we’re going back to the workplace to organize strike training meetings and prepare our members to vote to authorize a strike.”

Greg Knoblauch, a Veterinary Technician at the U and a member of the AFSCME negotiating committee, did the research that showed how union members’ wages have lost ground as top administrators have made huge salary increases. His research laid the basis for the Union’s “standard of living” campaign. In this campaign the workers are demanding that U of M management reverse the trend of low-paid workers falling behind inflation while top administrators continue to get larger and larger increases. According to Knoblauch, “We need an eight percent across-the-board wage increase the first year and a four percent across-the-board increase in the second year of the contract for our jobs to catch up to the value they had in 1994. Eight percent to catch up and four percent to keep up. That’s what we need, and that’s what we’re fighting for. Management’s proposal falls far short of what U workers need and are asking for.”

In addition to a quick blitz to prepare union members for a strike the first day of classes, community, labor and student support is swinging into gear as well. A Strike Support Committee website has been set up at www.uworkers.org.

Community, labor and student support was important in the U of M AFSCME clerical workers’ strike in 2003. This support included many sizable donations to the strike hardship fund from other unions, and members of other unions walking the U of M strike picket lines. In 2003, students also organized a 3-day sit-in in the administration building in support of the clerical workers’ demands.

According to Phyllis Walker, President of AFSCME Local 3800 and negotiating committee member, “We can’t keep losing ground. U of M clerical workers went on strike for two weeks in 2003 to stop take-backs. This year clerical, technical and health care workers are preparing for a possible strike together if management doesn’t put out some real money for its lowest paid workers. If management doesn’t take us seriously, we’re on a timeline that could lead to a strike during the first week of classes. We’ll also mobilize broad community and student support again. They won’t know what hit them.”

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