Union workers rally at Northrop

by Brian Stensaas

Across from the pillars of Morrill Hall – the University’s administrative abode – about 200 unionized University employees gathered in Northrop Plaza. They held hands, sang “solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong” and hoped the administration heard their hymn.

About one-third of the University’s 14,330 employees are union and currently in contract negotiations for better health care benefits and wage increases.

“It’s time for the University to make the economic well-being of its staff a major priority,” said Gladys McKenzie, chief negotiator for University clerical workers. “People are being asked to take major
cutbacks on health care benefits, which amounts to a pay cut.”

University union employees join 19,000 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and 10,500 members of Minnesota Association of Professional Employees in their discontent with 2001-03 contract offers. AFSCME voted Saturday to strike on Sept. 17, and MAPE decided Tuesday to join them. If the two unions do not reach an agreement with the state, their strike will deprive Minnesota of 60 percent of its government work force.

University AFSCME members, University police and workers with Teamsters 320 negotiate separate contracts with the University and not the state.

Negotiation committee meetings between union representatives and the administration are not going well, McKenzie said. She added that the University is currently offering union employees a 1 percent pay increase.

“They’re in the very early stages of talking about money right now,” said Caroll Carrier, vice president for human resources. She said she hopes to see union members receive a pay increase comparable to the 3 percent increase the administration gave civil service employees.

“We’ve told the University that 3 percent will not get them a settlement,” Carrier said.

The 2002-03 University operating budget will fund a $12-per-hour minimum wage for University employees working 75 percent of full time. The budget also allows for a 3-percent merit increase for administration.

Gregory Knobloch, an AFSCME member and University veterinary technician, noted that University President Mark Yudof received a 24 percent pay increase during the last three years. Excluding benefits, Yudof earns $335,000 per year.

“The salary adjustment came in light of (Yudof’s) performance review,” said Board of Regents Chairwoman Maureen Reed, who approved the president’s most recent raise last year. “It was felt that he was instrumental to the current and ongoing success of the University.”

Knobloch also said that between 1996 and 1999 the University increased its administrative staff at a rate of three per week. “The University wastes a lot of money here,” he said.

After 20 years of using the state’s health care plan, the University switched to a self-insured health care plan last semester and saved itself a recurring annual fee of $11.9 million. University officials maintain that this freed money will keep tuition from increasing further and help retain otherwise unaffordable University priorities.

Nancy Wilson, a member of the AFSCME bargaining team for health care workers, said she has worked at the University since 1976 and reached the top of the pay scale long ago. At $14.60 per hour and with the increased costs of health care benefits, she said she will not be able to remain at the University. “I can’t afford to work at the University at that rate,” she said.

McKenzie agreed, noting it takes $18 per hour to support a single female with two kids in the metro area.

“I think the plan is a good one,” Carrier said. “I understand there is concern of more cost sharing, but I think in most cases it will be relatively minor.” She added that employers around the country are facing a shift to self-insured health care.

“(The new plan) has good levels of choice and accessibility,” she said.

But unionized University employees say the new plan is inadequate. Under the state’s plan, union members had no co-payments for office visits, but with the University’s new plan, they will pay $5 to $10, and $20 extra for emergency-room co-payments.

“(The administration) is kind of stingy,” said David Fernandez, a University custodian and a member of the Teamsters negotiations committee. “They can pop up buildings left and right.”

He said he didn’t see an agreement between the administration and unions in the near future. “If (AFSCME and Teamsters 320) went on strike at the same time, then the University would come to a screeching halt,” he said.


K.C. Howard is an associate editor and welcomes comments at [email protected]