Money isn't everything in strike at U

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 11, 2007 - 11:09 PM

A wage increase of $1 a day stands between offers by AFSCME workers and the administration, but that's not the only difference.

Another dollar a day. That's the extra wage increase that it would take to stop the picketing and get everyone back to work, according to union workers who walked off the job a week ago on University of Minnesota campuses.

Still, the strike of clerical, health care and technical workers continued Tuesday, motivated by the 1 percent difference between what university officials have offered and what union officials say will secure a new contract.

The average striking worker has already given up about $680 in wages so far, about twice as much as the $350 extra boost the AFSCME members are seeking.

"We're just trying to ask the university to find $1.1 million out of a $1.5 billion budget," said Jennifer Lovaasen, communications coordinator for AFSCME Council 5.

But university officials stand by their offer of a 2.25 percent annual increase, and 2.5 percent increase for health care workers, in the two-year contract. That comes on top of the annual pay hikes of about 2 percent, called step raises.

"They argue that steps aren't real money," university President Robert Bruininks said last week. "If that were the case, they wouldn't increase your wages and the government wouldn't tax them.

"The main thing I want to say is that we value our employees. We want to get this settled, we want our people back at work, they do very important work for the University of Minnesota. We think this is a very fair offer. It goes beyond what we budgeted."

This strike -- only the second at the university in more than 60 years -- is almost exclusively about wages.

Union officials said bumping up the raises to 3.25 and 3.5 percent per year would likely be enough to secure a contract.

"Little differences become big differences," said University of St. Thomas business Prof. Sunil Ramlall. "What it comes down to is who wins? It's about who has the power.

"In the end, no one wins. ... Management loses because they can't deliver what they've promised and morale suffers. The workers lose because they don't earn wages."

But seven days after about 1,000 people went on strike, no negotiations have been scheduled and campus life continued with mostly minor disruptions for students.

At rallies over the past week, strikers have tried to draw attention to the $423,000 salary of Bruininks, a figure that is $39,000 more than a year ago and 80 percent higher than it was in 1994.

There has been talk about the "million dollar condo" that Bruininks and his wife recently purchased. (The purchase price was actually $1,054,716, according to real estate records.)

"I'm eager to get back to work, but I really believe what we're out here for is right," said Sara Zettervall, who works as an events and outreach specialist in the Center for Early Education and Development. "It's partly the principle. The Legislature gave the university money for raises, and we're standing up for the amount we believe we should be getting."

That Teamsters workers recently agreed to a contract with the university that will provide increases of 3 percent per year -- in addition to step increases for experience and longevity -- has only increased AFSCME's desire to fight.

"When the university offered us less at the table [than the Teamsters received], that was almost an invitation to us to strike," Lovaasen said.

For Eleanor Haase, this is her second strike in four years as she was among the clerical workers who struck for 15 days in 2003.

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