Time helps to bring U and union together

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 21, 2007 - 9:18 PM

Striking AFSCME workers will return to the job as early as Saturday after missing 13 days of work.

In the end, the missed paychecks and the impending loss of health insurance were simply too much to overcome.

So the picket lines at the University of Minnesota disappeared, those on a hunger strike went out to lunch and the two-week strike of clerical, health care and technical workers for higher wages came to an end Friday.

Although it rejected the same deal last week, the union's bargaining committee opted to accept the university's settlement offer of an extra $300 annually and to return to work as early as today. In doing so, the workers gave up their effort for an extra 1 percent raise, above the university's original deal that set off only the second strike of campus workers in 60 years.

In voices filled with frustration and anger, local leaders of the strikers' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, called the increases "inadequate" even as they accepted them.

"We are shocked by the administration's absolute disregard for people's lives," said Gladys McKenzie, chief negotiator for the union. "The university should be ashamed."

University President Robert Bruininks said in a statement that he was pleased the strike has ended.

"Striking workers will be returning to their jobs as early as [today]," Bruininks said. "We look forward to their return and coming back together as a community."

When about 1,000 workers walked off the job Sept. 5, some faculty members held classes off campus and politicians stopped by to speak in support of the strikers. But by the time the strike reached the two-week mark, the number of striking workers dropped below 900.

A dent in strikers' wallets

While union officials spoke of how much stronger their union is now than before and how the university didn't win, the striking workers paid a price.

A striker earning the average salary of $35,444 lost nearly $1,800 in wages in missing 13 days of work. In the end, the workers prompted the university to increase its prestrike offer by $50 per year before taxes.

Clerical and technical workers will receive 2.25 percent raises in each of the two years in the contract while health care workers will receive a 2.5 percent raise. Better than 90 percent of the workers will also continue to receive "step" raises of about 2 percent on their hiring anniversary dates for experience and longevity.

All workers will receive a $300 lump-sum payment annually. Workers who are no longer eligible for step increases will receive an additional $300 lump-sum payment each year.

When the strike began, union officials were seeking raises of 3.25 and 3.5 percent per year.

Jonathon Warnberg, a clerical worker who works with students with disabilities, said the only reason he was able to stay afloat financially was because he sold music equipment before the strike.

"Speaking as a single guy who rents and doesn't own a car, I live a very minimal lifestyle," Warnberg said. "I am not certain I am going to do so well to rebound from this, much less someone who has a family and a mortgage to pay."

That's part of the reason why the bargaining committee made the decision Thursday night to accept the offer and return to work. The proposal will be voted on by the union membership in early October.

Strikers also knew they would have to return to work by the end of next week so they could work one day in the current two-week pay period and keep their health coverage.

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