U staff fight for salary increases

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With their current contracts set to expire and negotiations looming, University staff members voiced concerns to the Board of Regents last Wednesday.

The regents held a public forum on University President Bob Bruininks’ 2007-2008 budget proposal, offering concerned citizens a chance to speak their minds. Speakers had three minutes each to address the board.

Several representatives from local chapters of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union attended the open forum, taking the opportunity to tell regents about what they perceive as an ever-widening wage gap.

Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME local 3800, which represents the University’s clerical workers, said the union is focused on improving living wages for support staff.

“Our three top priorities are wages, wages and wages,” Walker said.

AFSCME represents more than 3,500 technical, clerical and health-care workers on both the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses – every support staff job, from secretaries to laboratory technicians.

“Many, many clerical, technical and health-care employees cannot support their families on what they make at the ‘U,’ ” Walker said. “They have to work second and third jobs to make ends meet.”

Walker said she felt it was unfair support staff salaries have fallen 5 percent below the inflation rate in recent years, while administrative salaries, like that of Bruininks, have skyrocketed.

Negotiations between the University and support staff began on May 31, as the current two-year deal is set to expire at the end of this month.

Director of employee relations Patti Dion said the University looks at two things when negotiating wage rates.

“One is the amount of money that the Legislature gives to the University and secondly we look at the market,” Dion said. “There are, in fact, different markets for these unions than there are for university presidents.”

The goal of the negotiating process, according to Lori Ann Vicich, director of communications for the Office of Human Resources, is to make sure salary increases are fair and equitable across all employee groups.

Barbara Bezat, president of AFSCME local 3937, the technical workers’ union, said she felt differently.

“The disparity treatment in employee classes in the area of salaries is far greater than can be explained by happenstance,” Bezat said. “We believe this monstrous gap is the result of deliberate choices about where to put the money and believe different choices must be made.”

Bezat added that the University had been fortunate in this year’s legislative appropriations, and doesn’t face the same difficult choices that it has in years past in terms of employee salaries.

Not all speakers at the open forum were as receptive to the idea of wage increases.

Toby Madden, University doctoral student and parent to a first-year student, said he felt the budget money could be better spent elsewhere.

“The core mission of the University is teaching, research and public outreach,” Madden said. “What does sweeping floors, cleaning windows or fixing boilers have to do with our core mission?”

AFSCME member Greg Knoblauch spoke at the meeting in favor of support staff and their function at the University.

“AFSCME workers perform many vital University functions, working in nearly every University building and laboratory on every campus all over greater Minnesota,” Knoblauch said. “The quality and quantity of our work has brought and continues to bring added value to the University. To be fair, the University should be giving some of that value back to the workers who created it.”

Although there is no time frame for the parties to come to an agreement, Dion said she was optimistic a deal could soon be struck.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to reach a conclusion by the end of the summer and I think we have the right people at the table to make that happen.”