Union workers, University still talk ‘livable wage’

by Matt Graham

Among the chief rallying cries for union workers negotiating a new contract with the University this summer has been the call for “a livable wage.”

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 leaders point to a study conducted in 2003 by the JOBS NOW Coalition, a St. Paul-based labor advocacy group, which states that a single parent with two children in the Twin Cities metro area needs $19.64 per hour to get by.

Lead union negotiator Gladys McKenzie said the above figures factor in only necessities and that entertainment and vacations aren’t taken into account.

Union workers employed by the University make an average of $15.40 per hour, according to AFSCME Local 3800 President Phyllis Walker.

McKenzie said the University offered them a 1 percent wage increase, which she said is inadequate to make up for losses that came during the last round of negotiations.

While the union hoped to have negotiations wrapped up by now, union leaders said the two sides are still far apart.

University faces restrictions

Decreasing state support during the last several years has put the University in dire financial straits, requiring a wage freeze for union workers during the last round of negotiations in 2003. Talks coincided with rapidly increasing tuition rates as administrators tried to make up for lost funding while paying for rising costs.

If the 3,500 AFSCME bargaining unit workers each received a $4-per-hour raise, bringing wages near the figure suggested by the JOBS NOW Coalition, and if the average worker put in 40 hours per week for 52 weeks per year, the added cost to the University would be in the millions of dollars.

Still, union leaders said the University could afford to pay its workers livable wages if administrators held themselves to the same standards they hold employees.

McKenzie said the gap between administration salaries and workers’ wages has been growing since the late 1960s.

Greg Knoblauch, negotiator for AFSCME Local 3937, said the University told the union it had $28 million set aside for raises to all employee groups.

A greater proportion of that money will go to the highest-paid groups, but Knoblauch said it would be possible for every University worker to receive a $1,830-per-year raise, which he said would be fairer to employees who were hurt by the wage freeze.

“I don’t think people who made six-figure salaries felt any pain,” he said, noting that 35 percent of University workers make less than $40,000 while approximately 8 percent make more than $100,000.

“When do they address the issue of low-paid staff?” he said.

Steven Hunter, a member of the University’s Board of Regents and former political action director for AFSCME, said a livable wage, to him, means that “you can afford to take care of yourself and your family in a means that doesn’t rely on public assistance.”

The University must be responsible to its workers, but it cannot ignore the marketplace in which it competes for top faculty members, students and administrators, Hunter said.

Such market demands will be increasingly significant as the University attempts to lure top scholars to position itself as one of the top-three public research institutions on the planet.

The University ranked 28 out of 30 in its peer group for faculty pay and 22 of 30 in total compensation, according to a 2003 peer group comparison, figures the University hopes to improve.

Lori Vicich, communications director at the Office of Human Resources, said the University doesn’t only base faculty and administration salaries on the market, but union worker wages as well.

Vicich said that based on market criteria, the University offers union workers competitive wages.

University bargaining unit employees make an average of $34,610 per year, while public, private and higher-education union workers around the state make an average of $34,856, a difference of negative 0.7 percent, according to the University’s figures for April.

McKenzie said the University does have the money to improve union workers’ wages, but the problem is with the University’s priorities.

“Faculty (members) can’t do their jobs without the frontline staff,” McKenzie said.