Government workers on strike


The University settled with their Teamster union workers, giving them a similar package to State workers – 3.25% plus anniversary “step” increases; our Civil Service workers also received a 3+ percent increase. But the University has refused to give the remaining unions a similar package.

Ever a proud card-carrying Union Democrat, I am now a proud picket-carrying Union Democrat at the University of Minnesota, on strike the second time in four years. Many government workers — police officers and firemen/women – can’t strike; others, like ourselves and Metro Transit bus drivers (who also walked picket lines twice) can but should not HAVE TO. If people can’t get good wages and benefits working for the government, where can they? If college and state administrations are increasingly run like corporations and try to bust unions and keep workers down, where does that leave the rest of us in our “free” country? Unions are not against the law, folks. Workers do have rights. Don’t listen to Fox News (or perhaps your supervisor), for goodness sakes.

Opinion: Government workers on strike

At the University of Minnesota, AFSCME clerical, technical and health care unions have been on strike now 10 days. Last time it was just the clericals; now the three unions have gotten together. Somehow I don’t think the “U” administrators like that too much — some power to the people? Oh my.

Here are the basics.

One, this year, with our newly-elected Democratic legislature, both Minnesota state workers and University of Minnesota workers (who lobbied extensively for inclusion in the financial package) got an allotment of the “U”s total amount, specifically to be used for wage increases. Our “U” president specifically told legislators he needed X amount of money to settle some salary issues (our salaries since 1994 have not kept up with the rate of inflation.) So it is OUR money.

Two, state workers settled their contract last June – their best contract in ten years.

Three, the University settled with their Teamster union workers, giving them a similar package to State workers – 3.25% plus anniversary “step” increases; our Civil Service workers also received a 3+ percent increase. But the University has refused to give the remaining unions a similar package (out of revenge for our last strike, perhaps?). With three “negotiation” sessions thus far, the University hasn’t moved an inch on wage percentages – 2.25 and 2.50; the sole change is the amount of a “lump” sum which does little to offset inflation and future salary needs.

Four, the University of Minnesota is the only government employee in Minnesota we know of that equates anniversary “steps” for rewarding long-term employees and providing a way to move up the pay scale, with cost-of-living raises. Though many of us start at a pretty low salary anyway, and there are 20 or more steps, so it would take a worker many years to reach the top scale (actually the position’s market value), apparently these steps constitute a HUGE bother to the administration. They’ve tried to take those little “steps” away numerous times – it’s their budgetary obsession. Perhaps they’re so afraid that in the case of a pay freeze we might still get a 2% increase on our measly $25,000-$35,000 salaries. Heaven forbid! Can the “U” afford it? It can afford million-dollar coach buy-outs and costly stadiums, but this h-u-g-e cost?!….and to those who comprise the lowest-paid workers at the “U” to begin with!

Five, the salaries of top University administrators over recent years have gone through the roof, way exceeding inflation rates; last year, President Bruinink’s salary raise was $38,000, about $3,000 more than the average AFSCME worker’s salary. I smell corporatization trends here.

Finally, as a matter of pride and principle, why should AFSCME union workers accept a lesser offer than all of the other University workers and the State workers? It’s an insult (perhaps that’s the point).

Community support and support from students, faculty and the state legislature has been phenomenal with noisy protests and thousands of letters written to the Editor and the “U” administration. Elizabeth Edwards and senate candidates Al Franken and Mike Ciresi have spoken at rallies as well as Minnesota state legislators (including those in charge of the state budget), calling on President Robert Bruininks to offer us a fair settlement. Barak Obama postponed an appearance recently here in support of strikers and penned a letter to Bruininks, stating he’ll monitor the situation and hopes the issue is settled equitably. Next week some 12 students are even planning a hunger strike on our behalf. Apparently, all this isn’t enough to sway Mr. Bruninks and our Board of Regents. After some 100 protesters came to a Board of Regents meeting (five of whom were arrested as they blocked the door, demanding an answer to their questions), Bruininks still stated he has given us a fair offer and doesn’t care “how much noise there is on campus.” Well,, I suppose he can just go home to his million-dollar condo downtown and get some peace and quiet. You wouldn’t think this was a state, land-grant university. You wouldn’t think the money was expressly appropriated for us employees. You wouldn’t think the concept of “democracy” has even touched upon, let alone taken hold, of the minds of administrators of a college, of all places. Supposedly it’s good if people get involved in their communities and try to effect positive changes (like ending a strike or even a war), but then they’re hardly rewarded for the effort. No wonder there’s so much political apathy.

People talk of impeaching Bush – a great idea. But first impeach Bob Bruininks – how I wish that were possible. This college administrator seems even more entrenched, arrogant and insular in his power than President Bush. We have a corrupt, isolated inner circle running this University like it was Enron. Fortunately, they haven’t had the ability to raid our pension fund, or they’d have done so by now.

On a national scale, we claim the poor and middle class should pick themselves up by their bootstraps and get a job that pays well enough to support themselves and feed their families (without having cronies in office like Bush to appoint us for jobs for which we are not qualified). This gets harder all of the time as high-paying manufacturing jobs become scarcer and with more and more outsourcing. So what are people who haven’t had the opportunity, time or ability to become an R.N., pharmacist, lawyer or professor supposed to do – stand meekly by while their wages and standard of living steadily go downhill while the rich get richer all of the time? Whistle as their houses get foreclosed on? Hum as they pick between medicines, gas, food or utilities to pay for as pharmaceutical and oil companies are making record profits? People in professional positions are at least keeping up with cost-of-living increases and inflation (and 3% goes a lot further when the starting wage is $50,000 vs. $30,000, believe me). Why do so few feel any outrage that the incomes of the poor and middle class aren’t similarly keeping up? That no matter or poor or well the economy is going, nothing “trickles” down but a hell of a lot seems to be “gushing” up, much of it on the backs of the working poor?

Don’t give me the “don’t pit us against them” class warfare argument. It already is “us” against “them” – war has been waged on AFSCME workers by University administrators; war has been waged on the poor and middle class nationally with Bush’s planned cuts in child health care insurance, social services and the wealthy being granted tax breaks as the rest of us struggle with increasing tuition, housing and health insurance rates. War has even been waged, indirectly, on our own infrastructure and educational needs as big bucks are going to fund an unjust and illegal war which is largely being fought by the poor and middle class, leaving less and less money for the “social pot.”

Wake up and fight, workers. We AFSCME picketers are picketing not only for us, but for all of YOU too. If you don’t fight for your rights now, don’t complain ten years from now we all may even have less. Power to the people – it is possible – but even here (especially here) in America, you’ve got to be willing to fight for it.

Stephanie Sarich is a clerical worker and member of AFSCME Local 3800.