Picket lines rise on campus

Some find picketers disruptive

Mike Rose

Having not reached a deal with the University before midnight Tuesday, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union officially went on strike Wednesday.

AFSCME members, who include technical, clerical and health-care workers, have voiced frustration in recent weeks about the University’s proposed wage increase.

Much of the debate has centered on step increases -periodical pay raises for employers to reward experience and loyalty – and whether they should be included in a wage proposal.

Gladys McKenzie, chief negotiator for AFSCME, said the union is currently asking for a 3.5 percent increase in wages on top of step increases. Step increases would be between 2 percent and 2.5 percent this year.

When negotiations fell through Tuesday night, the University was offering roughly 1 percent less than AFSCME was willing to take, McKenzie said.

University spokesman Dan Wolter said the University’s offer, which would be a maximum of a 4.25 percent raise with step increases included, will remain on the table.

“We’re holding firm on the wage offer,” he said.

Wolter said late-night negotiations Tuesday included discussion of a lump-sum payment to striking workers. He said the union is not currently interested, but added that this might be the way to resolve the strike.

“We’re willing to talk about ways we can modify our offer,” Wolter said.

Wolter added that despite the extra strain put on University departments by striking workers, no departments had to close down.

Picketers found various gathering spots around campus. Some marched through the Northrop Mall chanting, “Hey, ho, we won’t go (until) President Bruininks shares the dough,” while whistling and yelling.

The marchers then crossed the bridge between the mall and Coffman Union, stopping to demonstrate for ground-level traffic.

Mechanical engineering first-year Paul Meyers said the marching strikers were a distraction on his second day of class.

“I wish they’d be quieter marching around campus,” he said. “It bothers me.”

Meyers added he felt if anyone should complain about their position, it should be students. Ultimately, he said, the strike is an administrative problem.

“I want them to just do their jobs and stop bothering me because I’m paying a lot to learn here,” Meyers said.

Strikers also positioned themselves in front of other notable campus buildings.

Troy Karkula, a nurse at Boynton Health Service, stood Wednesday morning on strike along Washington Avenue.

“I can’t keep up with bills,” he said. “I’ve been working here two years, and I’ve fallen behind.”

Jonathon Warnberg, a testing center coordinator at the McNamara Alumni Center, sat on the Coffman Union steps with his picket sign.

“(A strike) is certainly not something I want,” he said. “But you have to do what you have to do.”

Warnberg said his lifestyle does not cost him that much and he decided not to look for another job while on strike. Instead, Warnberg said he sold some of his music equipment to supply funds while he isn’t working.

Linda Kingman, a secretary in the biological sciences office, organized picketers outside Moos Tower.

She said currently strikers are assigned to four-hour shifts, although that will be flexible. Strikers can stay longer if they choose as well.

Kingman said the reason she was on strike Wednesday was simple: “Wages, wages, wages,” she said.

Other union workers showed their support of AFSCME members.

Jack Berner, who has worked as a bus driver with Metro Transit for 18 years, honked for strikers Wednesday while driving down Washington Avenue and gave a few of them thumbs-up.

Berner, who has been on strike twice while working at Metro Transit, said he was supporting the strike because he could empathize with other union workers.

“They’re trying to make a living, too,” he said. “Everybody on the top is taking all of the money.”

At noon, strikers gathered for a rally on the Northrop Mall. Rally organizers chose the location so they could be near University administration, housed in Morrill Hall.

The large crowd of roughly 1,500 celebrated, whistled and cheered as various union members and sympathizers gave speeches.

Some students donned green buttons in support of University workers, while many others sat on the fringe of the rally to take it all in.

Kayla Strickland, a postsecondary education student, was relaxing on the mall when the rally moved in.

“This is where we should be able to study, but I had to move,” she said. “I respect (the strike) but do find it distracting.”

Strickland added that she didn’t expect this during her first few days at the University and said she was slightly concerned about the lack of support staff if the strike draws on.

Among the notable guest speakers were AFSCME Council 5 executive director Elliot Seide and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Ciresi.

Ciresi said he has long supported workers and unions, going back to his days as a lawyer.

“Everyone is entitled to a fair playing field,” he said.

Ciresi added that it is often the middle class that feels squeezed by labor tensions.

“We need to re-energize the middle class,” he said.

He said a solution to labor disputes is to invest more into education and provide it at a lower cost so students aren’t left with large amounts of debt before they take their first jobs.

“If you provide for an educated, healthy population, (strikes) don’t happen,” he said.

Wolter said preliminary numbers from the University’s office of human resources show two-thirds of the more than 3,000 AFSCME workers reported to work Wednesday.