Five arrested as supporters of striking workers occupy U of M Board of Regents meeting

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Members of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents made a hasty exit out the rear door this morning as more than 100 protesters stormed their monthly meeting at the University’s McNamara Alumni Center.

As university police began entering the room to hold back the tide, Ty Moore of Socialist Alternative hijacked the meeting‘s agenda with the one question concerned the crowd. “I was wondering when there’s going to be a fair contract for U of M workers,” he asked the besieged regents.

The meeting was brought to a screeching halt when five women sat down near the speaker’s podium in an act of civil disobedience and were quickly handcuffed by police officers. While regents and audience members fled the meeting room, the protesters read a statement saying they had interrupted the meeting to pressure University officials to offer a fair contract settlement to clerical workers of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The workers have been on strike on all five U of M campuses and research institutions since Wednesday, September 5.

This year’s strike is the largest in the university’s history, with strikers representing 3,150 clerical, technical and health care workers throughout the University of Minnesota system. One of the major factors influencing the strike vote had to do with cost-of-living increases offered by the university. AFSCME claims that the university’s final offer, across-the-board wage increases of 2.5% for health care workers and 2.25% for clerical and technical workers, is not enough.

The University, on the other hand, says the proposal is a generous offer that would technically provide 94% of AFSCME employees with a pay increase of at least 4.5% each year for clerical and technical workers. AFSCME members like Steph Yorek claim this figure comes from the University purposely confusing step increases (measurements of a worker’s skill and time spent on the job) with cost-of-living increases to create their own new figure. Step increases, say union members, do not go to all workers and won’t impact the starting salaries of future workers. Neither were they meant to keep up with inflation and the cost of living.

“A clerical worker that starts today makes 5% less than a clerical worker who started in 2002,” Yorke stresses. “The way our jobs keep up with inflation is through the across-the-board increase. We’re very much a paycheck to paycheck workforce.”

Many of the students who occupied the regents’ meeting also played a role in supporting AFSCME’s previous strike in 2003. Isaac Kamola, a graduate instructor in Political Science, says that community support has grown substantially since the last strike, when AFSCME locals negotiated independently of one another. But the university, he added, has not changed its attitude towards union members.

“The university is openly hostile towards labor,” he says. “They are providing incredible amounts of misinformation about the strike. Both in 2003 and this year they’ve sent out emails telling us it’s illegal to hold classes off campus during the strike, which is not true. Last time they also warned students that strikers may become violent. But this year they’ve gotten more sophisticated and subtle. They’ve had a lot of practice in breaking the GradTrac [graduate students’] union.”

According to striking clerical worker Karen Thorson, many professors have begun holding classes off campus despite the warnings, squeezing students into coffee shops and churches to avoid crossing picket lines. Thornson, a U of M employee since 1978, says she struggles to support her 90-year-old mother on her library aide’s salary. She and her co-worker Stephanie eagerly shared their support for today’s actions taken by students on their behalf.

“I’m beyond impressed with the students,” says Stephanie. “For them to become this aware at this point in their lives is very important.”

Back inside the meeting room, the atmosphere wavered between tension and festivity. Students dined on slices of cantaloupe amidst police, one of them armed with a pepper spray rifle, who formed a buffer between them and the remaining regent, Steve Hunter. Hunter, who also serves as Secretary/Treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, said he was sympathetic to the striker’s demands but not enthusiastic about the disruption of the meeting. Abandoned by the other regents, he alone faced the brunt of the activists’ anger.

“This is not the time and place to conduct negotiations,” he told the accusing crowd.

Hunter told protestors that the regents were in the midst of discussing the strike and praised the efforts of the university support staff, saying that the regents would come together to address the strike settlement if protesters sat down and behaved in an orderly manner. Protesters complied, and the regents re-entered the room to take their seats at the table. Hunter then made a short statement expressing his willingness to resolve the strike and moved to the next item on the agenda. Dissatisfied protestors began chanting once again, interrupting the meeting and driving regents from the room for a second time. When it appeared that the meeting would not be held the protesters left the building to attend a support rally outside, vowing to keep returning until union demands were met.

Meanwhile, the five women who were arrested are being held without bail for “interfering with public property” a charge that Jordan Kushner of the National Lawyer’s Guild says was intentionally created to deal with political dissent. The statute [Minnesota Statute 624.72] specifically mentions demonstrations at Board of Regents meetings in its text. Kushner, who has worked with many U of M students arrested during protests over the years, explains that this statute changes what would normally be a misdemeanor trespass into a gross misdemeanor.

“I think this is to punish them for speaking out,” he adds, when asked about the justification for denying bail. “You’re supposed to go through the legal process to decide whether or not you’re going to jail, not sit in jail until they figure it out.”

Kushner expects the women to have a hearing before a judge next Monday or Tuesday.