11 students stop eating to support U strikers

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 17, 2007 - 11:08 PM

The university calls "unfortunate" a decision by students to go on a hunger strike in solidarity with clerical, health care and technical workers.

Wearing an armband with the word "fast" on it, Sofi Shank admits that her decision to put her body on the line for her beliefs isn't sitting well with her parents.

"They're really concerned about my health," said Shank, 19, a University of Minnesota freshman. "My dad hasn't been getting sleep; he's been calling me all the time."

On Monday, Shank was one of 11 university students who began a hunger strike in support of striking clerical, health care and technical workers. The students -- who are also being joined by one professor and a university civil service employee -- will drink water and juice, but they vow not to eat again until the university settles the contract dispute with the AFSCME-represented workers.

The university called the hunger strike "unfortunate," and even the striking workers, who rejected an administration offer last week for a lump sum payment in lieu of a higher raise, aren't all thrilled with it.

But the 11 students say they will sit in chairs each day just outside of Morrill Hall, the primary administration building.

"The administration is set on busting this union, so we're pushed into this as our last resort," said Shank, who grew up in southwest Minneapolis. "Will the administration listen? All we can do is try. For our own health, we hope the answer is yes."

Said Dani Indovino, a graduate student in the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs: "We've tried e-mails, we've tried calling, we've tried going to the regents' meeting, we've been standing on picket lines."

Phyllis Walker, the president of the local representing the clerical workers, said some of the AFSCME strikers are uncomfortable with the hunger strike.

"I was worried about them at first, but they are adults," Walker said. "This is important to them, they're making their own decisions, and we're really honored. ..."

University spokesman Dan Wolter said it is, "unfortunate when people choose to use their personal health to make a point in a labor dispute."

As the strike closes in on the two-week mark, both sides remain steadfast in their requirements to end the dispute.

The union says the university's contract offer of a 2.25 percent annual raise for clerical and technical workers and a 2.5 percent raise for health care workers isn't sufficient. The U's position is that when combined with step raises for experience, most AFSCME represented employees will receive raises of at least 8.5 percent for the contract's two years.

On Friday, the union turned down an offer in which workers would have received a $300 lump sum during each year of the contract while keeping the base increases the same.

"Our members have told us many times that lump sums don't have any lasting impact on their wages," Walker said.

AFSCME has said that if the university bumped the salary increases to 3.25 and 3.5 percent, the strike would likely end.

Wolter declined to comment when asked why the university would not apply the money for the lump sum toward increases in base pay.

The two sides continue to dispute how large of an impact the strike is having. The union said that picket lines at loading docks across campus have interrupted deliveries and that the university "isn't operating as business as usual."

The university said that the number of strikers returning to work is increasing. About 1,000 of 3,100 workers represented by the AFSCME contracts walked off the job on Sept. 5. The university said Monday that number has dropped to between 900 and 950.

Jeff Shelman • 612-673-7478

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