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AFSCME Unions at U of MN File Unfair Labor Practices Lawsuit

by Brad Sigal |
August 1, 2005
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Minneapolis, MN - “After our strike two years ago, we were ready to sit down and negotiate a good contract this year. But U of M management started off by undermining our negotiating committee and attacking me as local president because we have stood up for our members and for justice,” said Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME Local 3800 and co-chair of the Clerical and Health Care workers’ negotiating committee.

On July 19, four AFSCME unions representing 3500 workers at the University of Minnesota filed an Unfair Labor Practices lawsuit against the university administration and held a press conference explaining the move. There were three charges named in the suit.

First is the fact that the university administration is refusing to recognize the joint negotiating committee that clerical and health care workers formed this year. Management won’t give union leave from work to committee members to attend all negotiating sessions, forcing committee members to take vacation time or leave without pay to negotiate. In some past rounds of negotiations there have been joint union committees and this year there are joint negotiations for health insurance coverage. But management refuses to recognize that the clerical and health care workers formed a joint committee this time.

According to negotiating committee co-chair Polly Peterson, “I think they are afraid of having us being in solidarity with each other. I think in general they don’t want us together. They can control us better and manipulate us against each other if we are separate.” Negotiations didn’t start until one week before the current contract expired, because of drawn-out wrangling over the composition of the union negotiating committee.

The second reason for the Unfair Labor Practices lawsuit is that University of Minnesota Director of Employee Relations, Patti Dion, sent an e-mail to all AFSCME members in mid-July - in the midst of negotiations - to give workers the impression that management plans to give them decent pay increases this year, unlike the wage freeze two years ago. The unions note that this is particularly inappropriate because Dion sent this email to union members before wages had even been brought up at the negotiating table, in effect bypassing the elected negotiating committee with their wage proposal.

Further, according to Peterson, the Dion email is, “Saying to our members that they’re going to come toward us [at the negotiating table] and try to make up for some of what happened in the past, and that’s not at all what’s happened, so that’s very frustrating and feels hypocritical.” Management’s opening proposal on wages, presented to the union negotiating committee on July 29, was for a 1% annual wage increase.

Finally, management opened negotiations with a proposal to take away the ability of Phyllis Walker, president of the clerical union, to work half-time for the union and half-time at her regular job. They said at the negotiating table that this is because they don’t like what Walker is doing in her union time.

Management specifically referred to the protests that the union participated in to try to save the university’s General College from being shut down by President Bruininks’s Strategic Positioning Initiative. Bruininks’s initiative aims to make the University of Minnesota a more elite university. A key part of his plan is to close General College, which will shut off access to many working-class students and students of color who enter the university through General College.

According to clerical negotiating committee member Kelly Ryan, “The U is clearly retaliating because we opposed the plan to close General College and because we went on strike in 2003. They only propose to take union time away from the president of the clerical local. The U is sending a message that if a union leader speaks out for the interests of workers and students, they will come after her. This is a political attack.”

The union negotiating committee has stood firm against this management attack. According to negotiations notes posted on the AFSCME 3800 website, the Clerical and Health Care chief negotiator, Gladys McKenzie, told management at the negotiating table on July 22, in reference to continuing the union president’s half-time leave: “The University will not be seeing a settlement without this language. We will not recommend a settlement offer to our members without this language.”