Obama backs striking workers

Obama canceled his scheduled visit to the University and moved to an off-campus site.

by Alyssa Kroeten

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama sent a letter to University President Bob Bruininks informing him of the cancelation of a campaign event in support of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees strikers.

The Obama Campaign Caucus Convention was to be held Sept. 15 at the University’s Ted Mann Concert Hall but is rescheduled for Oct. 6 at an off-campus location.

James Hannaway, national youth vote coordinator for the Obama campaign, said the event was moved in solidarity with striking AFSCME members. “We’re probably going to have (the event) at St. Paul Central High School because we do stand with AFSCME,” he said. “We’re definitely not having it on the University of Minnesota campus.”

However, critics claim the attention political figures are paying the strike is simply a political platform.

But in his letter, Obama asked Bruininks to support strikers by meeting their wage-increase proposal. “The workers’ requests are simple and reasonable,” the letter stated. “Their real pay has dropped over the last few years as the cost of living has increased.”

The workers who dedicate their time and services to the University need the financial means to support themselves, Obama said. “(They) deserve a wage that allows them to raise a family and plan for retirement,” he said.

Obama also encouraged Bruininks to take the necessary steps to resolve the situation. “End this strike and make the University of Minnesota a place that respects all of its workers,” the letter stated.

Although he appreciates Obama’s interest in the well-being of the University, Bruininks still stands by his wage proposal, University spokesman Dan Wolter said.

“President Bruininks (believes) the University’s wage offer of 8.5 percent (is) a fair and competitive offer,” Wolter said.

Obama is the latest in a slew of politicians and political figures voicing their solidarity with union workers. The four Minnesota politicians vying for DFL endorsement for a chance as U.S. senator – Mike Ciresi, Jim Cohen, Al Franken and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer – came to the University and spoke of their support.

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, said the strike is being used for political gain to garner union

support. “Elections are about putting together teams, and you want to have the most effective resources and capabilities,” he said.

Justin Henry, vice president of U-DFL, disagrees and said recent criticism of democratic candidates’ support is unacceptable. He said he doesn’t think it’s appropriate for the University to be questioning the integrity of democratic candidates who are here supporting University workers legitimately.

Political science junior Ole Hovde said politicians’ public support is a self-serving political stunt. “Any politician is going to be out there (garnering) support if it is going to benefit them,” he said. “(A politician) is not doing it for you; he’s doing it for himself.”

Yet, unions are an important institutional ally to democrats and the strike is a chance to build support. “What the unions bring are contributions, but also volunteers,” Jacobs said. “The unions are a huge influence in democratic party politics.”

Situations such as the strike create symbols for politicians to define their campaigns around, Jacobs said. It’s also an opportunity to try and win over the leaders of union organizations.

Regardless of the reasons, Hovde said politicians should stay out of the strike and leave the decision-making to those involved.

“Keep the politicians out of it and (keep) negotiations between the University and AFSCME to get (the strike) over with,” Hovde said. “When these politicians come in, they’re using the workers as propaganda.”

However, politicians still apply symbolic pressure – even if only symbolic.

“Sen. Obama’s letter (is) a message to unions,” Jacobs said. “It’s a pretty tepid way to put pressure on the administration.”