One strike settled, another avoided

After 15 days on strike, clerical employees went back to work with tentative agreement.Health-care workers aver

A After 15 days and two consecutive all-night negotiation sessions, striking University clerical employees are returning to their jobs today.

The University and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Locals 3800 and 3801, the unions representing about 1,900 full-time clerical employees on four University campuses, reached a tentative agreement early Tuesday morning.

Leaders of AFSCME Local 3800, on strike since Oct. 21, would not disclose details of the agreement until they communicated them to the unions’ members, Local 3800 President Phyllis Walker said.

Gladys McKenzie, chief negotiator for Local 3800, said the contract is better than it was before and the University made some attempt to bridge the gap between the former contract and economic demands of the union’s members.

The contract proposal the union rejected before striking included a wage freeze in the first year of the contract and a 2.5 percent raise in the second year. It also eliminated step increases, which are raises given on an employment anniversary.

McKenzie said the mood at the negotiating table was different during this round.

“I think there was the energy on both sides to put (an agreement) together,” she said.

Union member Jeanne Bischoff, who was on strike throughout the 15-day period, said she is glad negotiations resulted in an improvement from the original offer.

University President Bob Bruininks said the University moved on some language issues of the contract, but that the settlement was still within the financial guidelines the Board of Regents approved in June.

“We are glad to have employees back at work. We need them,” Bruininks said. Both sides were highly motivated in reaching an agreement, he said.

Bruininks said that while students at Morrill Hall last week helped both parties develop a better sense of the problem, they did not lead the University back to the table.

Union members said they were relieved, happy and ready to get back to work.

“I’m really encouraged because it’s been a really difficult time, but we’ve been supported,” union member Robin Sauerwein said. She had been on strike since the walkout began.

Union member Cheryl Johnson said community support kept her going. Johnson said she now knows people from whom she has worked across the street for years but never met.

The union will present the new contract to its members and try to mail ballots by late next week, Walker said. It will take about three weeks to ratify the new contract.

Walker said morale during the strike was empowering and the solidarity demonstrated has changed the union.

“Standing and fighting has made the union relevant to our members,” Walker said.

Union member Samantha Ploetz said union members not only won a fair contract but also united the union.

The union will continue collecting money for a hardship fund to distribute to union members because some will suffer the strike’s financial burden for the next few weeks, Ploetz said.

Instead of striking Tuesday, University health-care employee union members went about business as usual after the leaders reached a tentative contract agreement with the University.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3260, the union representing more than 170 University health-care employees, reached the agreement at about 2:45 a.m. Tuesday after more than 13 hours of negotiations.

The union voted to strike Oct. 15 over proposed wage changes, health-care cost increases and benefits reductions. The strike date was set for Tuesday if an agreement could not be reached.

Health-care union members and their supervisors said they are relieved the two parties reached a tentative agreement, but both were prepared for a strike.

Rita McCue, president of AFSCME Local 3260, said the union had planned to work with AFSCME Local 3800 in the event of a strike. AFSCME Local 3800 – which represents approximately 1,700 clerical workers on three University campuses – had been on strike since Oct. 21 but also reached a tentative agreement Tuesday morning.

“I want to give attention to 3800 because without their support and their help, I don’t think we would have gone as far as we had preparing for our strike,” McCue said.

AFSCME Local 3260’s membership will vote whether to accept the University’s final contract offer. A voting date has not yet been set, but the union is hoping to have the voting process done within a couple weeks, McCue said.

Beth Moshier-Wallin, a senior office supervisor in the department of clinical systems dentistry, said her department hired temporary employees to perform the jobs of AFSCME Local 3260 members in case they went on strike. Moshier-Wallin said she supervises 13 AFSCME Local 3260 employees and collected the office keys from potential strikers Monday night.

“That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “I was happy to give them back this morning.”

Vicki Slaikeu, a department of preventive sciences dental assistant specialist and AFSCME Local 3260 member, said workers came to work Tuesday wearing boots, mittens and hats in preparation to picket. She said she was ready to strike but glad an agreement was reached.

“I was very relieved,” Slaikeu said. “We were all very relieved.”

Slaikeu works directly with dentists and surgeons, preparing for operations and helping with surgical procedures. She said some dentists canceled appointments prior to the potential strike because of the difficulty of operating alone.

Lisa Gillie, an admissions interviewer in the department of clinical systems dentistry and AFSCME Local 3260 member, said she was somewhat nervous calling the strike hotline Tuesday morning.

“I don’t think (striking) was something anybody really wanted to do,” she said. “I think everyone is real happy.”

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