University of Minnesota: Dignity vs. Cutbacks

— Corey Mattison

ON OCTOBER 21, 1800 clerical workers of AFSCME Local 3800 made statewide news by going on strike against the University of Minnesota. At the heart of the AFSCME clerical workers' struggle was a strong determination to stand up for their dignity and respect.

Contract negotiations between the union and the university broke down earlier in the month when, in the midst of a Republican-initiated state budget crisis and spiraling health care costs, the university administration was trying to impose a wage freeze, shift health care costs to workers, and eliminate step pay increases.

Bob Bruininks, president of the University of Minnesota, also refused to grant the union a provision that would end its practice of laying off workers and rehiring them at the bottom at the pay scale.

In the end, AFSCME Local 3800 secured a limited victory in the form of a fairer contract than the university's previous final offer. But for a few weeks in October, this small union of clerical workers also fought for the rest of us in Minnesota who are facing similar attacks upon our livelihood and dignity.

Distribution Crisis or Budget Crisis?

In its battle with the clerical workers' union, the University of Minnesota claimed that state money was not available to pay for wage increases and health care costs. The university blamed the situation on state budget crisis, instigated by a lagging economy but worsened by Republican governor Tim Pawlenty's refusal to raise state taxes.

By refusing to raise taxes on the rich, politicians simply shifted the budget shortfall onto the backs of workers and the poor. The budget crisis resulted in significant cuts in social services and public education which were felt throughout the state.

In the midst of state financial problems, the public-sector unions threatened to strike in September and October over pay freezes and higher health care costs. Ultimately, only AFSCME Locals 3800 and 3801 carried out their threat of a strike, and they did so against the advice of the state leadership of AFSCME Council 6, which argued that victory was impossible in the current climate of state fiscal austerity.

According to President Bruininks, the clerical workers would have to sacrifice, as would other workers in the state. In response, AFSCME Local 3800 argued that the University had a distribution crisis, not a budget crisis, since plenty of money was available for the spending priorities of the university administration.

For instance, the University unveiled plans before the strike to raise $750 million for a new football stadium.

Furthermore, the workers argued, university officials were not announcing any plans of sacrifice on their own part. AFSCME Local 3800 published a flyer that listed the salaries and perks of the top university officials, all making over $100,000 a year.

In attacking step increases and refusing to include language that prohibited rehiring laid-off workers at the bottom of the pay scale, the university attacked contract provisions that amounted to insignificant costs for the university but which were central to workers' livelihoods.

The university's stance during negotiations was particularly aggressive, leading clerical workers to conclude that Bruininks and the Board of Regents were looking to weaken the union's power with the latest round of negotiations. This belligerence could be interpreted as a backlash against Local 3800, which in the past had secured significant victories based on militant and creative action.

For example, in 2000-01 clerical workers were able to negotiate a contract for a base-line minimum wage at the University of Minnesota of $12 per hour, aided in large part through the Union's campaign centered on the slogan “Raise the Floor.”

Union Strength in Solidarity

AFSCME Local 3800's strategy for the strike was to fight on two fronts: internally, by crippling the university's functioning, and externally by waging a community campaign, to apply extra pressure upon the university administration.

In preparing for the strike, Local 3800 invited students, faculty, and community members to actively contribute to the effort. As soon as workers walked off the job, students and faculty were meeting at the strike headquarters, organizing solidarity efforts that included community rallies, direct action efforts, and eventually a sit-in.

A Labor-Community Strike Support Committee was organized prior to the strike, and also met at strike headquarters, helping to organize community rallies and get out the word.

As soon as workers hit the picket lines on October 21, thousands of students and community members demonstrated their solidarity by wearing “We Support U of M Workers” buttons. Numerous businesses near the university displayed the same message in their storefront windows.

In addition, strike leaders from Yale University visited Minneapolis to show their support and to share their experience in building community support for the union as a means of winning a strike against a powerful university.

By the second week of the strike, with 70% of Local 3800 members staying off the job, it was clear that the strike was having an effect upon the functioning of the university. For the first time, professors were learning to cope without staff, and researchers were figuring out how to enter their own data.

Work was piling up, and the remaining workers were struggling under the workload. One non-union worker remarked to Local 3800, “Don't believe what you read in the paper -- it's falling apart in there.” (U Strike Bulletin, Day 4, October 24, 2003)

Lending further support to the effort, workers providing services or delivering goods to the university were refusing to cross the picket lines. For example, UPS and Coca-Cola drivers refused to deliver to the university, and building contractors ended construction projects.

Ultimately, students at the University of Minnesota would also play a crucial role in the strike. On October 28, 70 students held a sit-in at the university's administration building, Morrill Hall, demanding that President Bruininks return to the bargaining table with AFSCME Local 3800.

Subsequently, when on October 30 the students declared an around-the-clock sit-in until their demand was met, Bruininks agreed to come back to the bargaining table. In the midst of a large community rally on campus, students abandoned Morrill Hall to the cheers of 500 AFSCME workers and supporters.

AFSCME 3800's Victory

On November 2, twelve days after the start of the strike, AFSCME Local 3800 once again entered into negotiations with the university.

After three days of negotiations, and securing some significant concessions from the university, the union leadership decided to bring the latest offer to the membership for consideration.

In the morning of November 2, over 600 clerical workers met across the state on two hours notice to discuss the university's offer, in what Gladys McKenzie, the union's chief negotiator, called “the most democratic process I've ever witnessed.” (AFSCME Council 6 Negotiator's Report #4, November 7, 2003)

AFSCME Local 3800's negotiating team was not able to move the university on the health care issue. But they were successful in maintaining yearly step increases in the second year of the contract, winning a 4% pay increase for long-term workers in the second year of the contract, and adding language that protected the seniority level of rehired workers after having been laid off.

This last provision was identified by the membership as the number one priority in the pre-negotiation survey. The union also secured continuation of the Rule of 75, which grants early retirement without a reduction of benefits for long-term workers. (See details of the tentative contract and the Negotiator's Report #4 at AFSCME's web site, www.AFSCME3800.org)

With many clerical workers facing personal financial crisis after two weeks on strike, many clerical workers felt that the gains achieved in the last offer were the most that could be won at the present time. Recognizing the limited economic gains contained in the university's offer, the vast majority of clerical workers present at the meetings voted in favor of accepting it. (At the time of writing this update, AFSCME Local 3800 members have just voted in to ratify the contract.)

Nonetheless, regardless of the decision, the union identified the health care issue as a crisis that would only continue, and vowed to continue organizing for that challenge ahead.

In the AFSCME Council 6 Negotiator's Report #4 of November 7, Gladys McKenzie summed up AFSCME Local 3800's struggle well:

“We stood up and in the process forged a new union. Before our strike, we asked the University to find its best self, to take the lead on justice and fairness. In the end, it was necessary for us to take the lead and in doing so we won the respect and support of the majority of the University community. Out of our strike emerged an electrifying political struggle. It inevitably became a political struggle because it directly challenged a public policy. Our fight resonated with people's sense that the health care system is out of control and getting worse. It resonated with people's sense of a growing divide between haves and have-nots. Our ability to prevail in the face of the University's demands was limited by economic necessity. There is no shame in that. We returned to work together, stronger than the day we struck, prepared to continue our fight for justice.”

ATC 108, January-February 2004