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The Minnesota Daily

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The Minnesota Daily

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Possible strike looms in August

Despite stalled union talks on benefit changes, “U” officials do not expect a strike.

MBy Jake Weyer More than a month after the University’s Board of Regents voted to freeze employee wages and change health-care benefits, union leaders representing thousands of University staff are leaving open the possibility of a strike.

The unions and University administrators said negotiations about the benefit changes are currently stalled.

Union members said if they were to strike, the University would not be able to function, but University administrators said they do not expect a strike to occur.

But a strike could occur as soon as August 15.

Unions representing University clerical, technical, medical and law enforcement employees have been bargaining with administration officials over proposed health-care cost increases, wage freezes and other benefits since spring.

“We are communicating with membership and being real open with people at meetings that (a strike) is an option,” said Phyllis Walker, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800. AFSCME Local 3800 represents 1,800 University clerical workers.

Union leaders and University administrators have met seven times to discuss the proposed health-care changes. Administration officials said there has been progress.

“We have reached a tentative agreement on a number of issues,” said Patti Dion, University Office of Human Resources director, who has been involved in negotiations. She would not identify those issues.

Some union members, however, said there has been little progress on the most pressing issues such as health care.

Union and University officials said health-care bargaining is in a state of confusion because financial figures the administration gave to unions are flawed, though neither side would elaborate.

“We need to clarify costs so we’re all operating on the same page,” Dion said.

The unions are collectively bargaining with the University for health insurance. Other issues – including wage freezes, vacation time and sick leave – are being negotiated by each union individually.

Jody Ebert, president of AFSCME Local 3937, which represents technical workers at the University, said no substantial changes have been made during her unit’s negotiations.

Other union members agree, and said talk of a strike is becoming more common. Members of union negotiating committees have been holding daily meetings to update members on negotiations.

At least one expert said the timing for a strike could be problematic.

Carlson School of Management industrial relations professor John Remington said “this is not an ideal time to strike. Public budgets are tight and everyone is looking for low costs.”

A decision to strike cannot be made overnight, Remington said. He said before unions can legally strike, they must wait 45 days after requesting a mediator from the state Bureau of Mediation Services. If the mediator does not succeed and the 45 days pass, unions are free to strike.

Unions filed a request for a mediator on June 30, Walker said.

Michele Rockne-Semkow, executive administrative specialist at the Institute of Technology Career Services, said people work at the University because of benefits and its academic, research and outreach missions.

Rockne-Semkow also represents the East Bank on the negotiation committee for AFSCME Local 3800. She said she will struggle if benefits are scaled back.

“I can’t pay my mortgage with the mission.”

Jake Weyer cover faculty and staff issues and welcomes comments at [email protected]

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