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Strike ends, struggle continues for U of MN workers

by Brad Sigal |
September 29, 2007
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Minneapolis, MN - After being on strike for nearly three weeks, workers at the University of Minnesota returned to work on September 21. They went back to work still angry at the U administration, but better organized and determined to carry forward the struggle for economic justice. University clerical, health care and technical workers in four unions struck after the U administration refused to give them the salary increase that other state workers received and that the state legislature had budgeted for them to keep up with inflation. Members of AFSCME Locals 3260, 3800, 3801, and 3937 went on strike all over the state on the second day of the school year, September 5, after months of negotiations.

Lasting almost three weeks, the strike mobilized over 1,000 workers. Daily strike rallies mobilized thousands of strikers and supporters in the first week. In the second week of the strike, picketing focused on cutting off supplies coming in on trucks to the U’s loading docks. Many truck drivers are union members who won’t cross picket lines. By picketing the loading docks, strikers were able to turn away and delay many trucks, causing chaos inside the U. Many picketers spoke joyfully of defying one of the U’s top lawyers, who spent days running around the loading docks trying to intimidate picketers. The strike brought the rank and file members of all four U of M AFSCME unions together for the first time. Union members were transformed during the strike, becoming much more organized and disciplined on the picket lines as they saw that disciplined picketing could seriously affect the U’s operations.

The striking workers received large amounts of support from students, professors, state legislators, other unions and community members. A Labor and Community Support Committee organized daily actions to support the workers during the strike. Over 20 academic department heads wrote letters to U of M President Bruininks supporting the workers’ demands, as did thousands of students and professors. During the first week of the strike over 100 students marched into the U Board of Regents meeting on September 7 to talk to them about the workers’ demands. The regents walked out of the room and had five protesters arrested.

In the second week of the strike, eleven students, a professor, and two workers launched a hunger strike in solidarity with striking workers. Two days later 40 more people joined the hunger strike for a day. The hunger strike lasted until the end of the strike, with one student going to the hospital with dehydration while another got walking pneumonia. The U administration appeared unprepared to respond to the hunger strike. On the third day of the hunger strike, a U spokesperson announced they would send a nutritionist to talk to the students about proper nutrition. According to hunger striker Tracy Molm, “the administration pretended to care about our health by sending out a nutritionist. At the same time they were ready to jeopardize the health care coverage of thousands of striking workers by allowing the strike to drag on past when workers’ health benefits would expire. And if they cared about the hunger strikers’ health, they could have just settled the strike, which would have ended the hunger strike too. The administration doesn’t care about workers or students.”

Hundreds of students marched on various parts of the sprawling U of M campus in almost daily marches and rallies supporting the strike. When students marched by picket lines, a popular chant was “workers and student will never be defeated!” On one night, a labor fundraiser raised over $20,000 from other unions to support the U workers’ hardship fund. Members of other unions in the area joined the U of M picket lines and rallies.

Prominent state legislators wrote open letters to U of M President Bruininks, saying they had budgeted more money for workers’ raises and criticizing him for giving workers less.

The U of M strike seriously disrupted some key clinics and offices, while the workers received broad public support. But despite this, the U administration refused to give in on the workers’ main demand – to increase their across-the-board annual pay raise to keep pace with inflation. Instead, the strike won larger one-time “lump sum” payments in both years of the contract. While winning more money could be considered a partial victory, union leaders noted that lump sum payments don’t go on the base salary to help wages keep up with inflation over time. “This offer is unfair because it fails to keep up with inflation,” said Rhonda Jennen, president of the health care workers. “The U is choosing to impoverish some of its workers. World class universities don’t treat their workers like second class citizens.”

On September 21, the union ended the strike and decided to bring the administration’s settlement offer back to all members for a vote, without recommendation. Normally when there is a tentative agreement the union will recommend that union members vote for the proposal. The lack of a recommendation made clear the union’s unhappiness with the U’s settlement offer. Regardless of how the vote turns out, union leaders and rank and file members are continuing their campaign for economic justice for the lowest paid workers at the University. “We are forced back to work because we can no longer sustain the loss of salary and a looming end to our health care coverage...we remain shocked by the administration’s absolute disregard for people’s lives,” said Denise Osterholm, President of UM-Duluth’s Local 3801. “This settlement is inadequate in that it does not account for the ever rising cost of food, gas and housing. Because of inflation, someone starting work under this contract will earn eight percent less than someone who started the job in 2003.”

In a statement announcing the end of the strike, the union said, “We have been met at every turn by an intransigent administration, led by President Robert Bruininks and Vice President and Provost E. Thomas Sullivan, who are committed to the idea that those who already have should have ever more while the have-nots are pushed further to the bottom.”

Phyllis Walker, Local 3800 president, said, “We wish to thank the many thousands across the state who have given us support, including faculty, students, unions and community members. We are energized to build a world class union. We are confident that we will do that before the administration builds a world class University. Bruininks and Sullivan have an agenda of more money for the rich, more free research for corporations, and education only for the elite. Their agenda shuts working class Minnesotans out of the University.”