Crossing a line to make ends meet

Some University workers will not honor their union’s picket lines, opting to keep their wages.

Jake Weyer

As the largest University employee union’s Oct. 21 strike date nears, union members must decide between crossing picket lines and standing in them.

Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800, the union representing 1,800 University clerical workers, have discussed going on strike since August because of proposed changes in health-care costs, wages and benefits.

The union, however, does not speak for all of its members – some AFSCME Local 3800 members do not want to strike. Of the 88 percent of the union’s membership who took a strike vote, 37 percent voted to accept the University’s final contract.

Like many of her colleagues, AFSCME Local 3800 member Kitty Casey said she will lose money under the proposed wage freeze and health-care cost increases.

However, Casey said the contract is not unreasonable and she will not go on strike.

“A strike puts employees at a tremendous disadvantage,” said Casey, a senior accounts assistant for University Bookstores.

She said although she will lose approximately $800 per year – almost three weeks of pay – her wages and benefits were not as good in her previous private sector position.

“What’s out there is far worse,” she said. “To pay 10 percent of a premium is very little.”

Under the University’s proposed health-care changes, single employees using the cheapest, most basic health-care plan must pay 10 percent of the premium. Currently, the University pays 100 percent of the premium for that plan.

Casey said some union members are afraid of not being able to provide for their families in the event of a strike.

“A lot of them can’t figure out how to put food on the table,” she said. “They may agree in theory, but when it comes down to it, they really don’t want to (go on strike).”

As a strike nears, more pressure is put on members who do not want to strike, said John Remington, an industrial relations professor in the Carlson School of Management.

“If there is a strike, some employees will cross (picket lines),” he said. “That’s where the pressure gets nasty. People who cross in those first few days are generally viewed as scabs.”

Remington said it is generally true nationwide that public-sector employees have better benefits packages but lower salaries than their private-sector counterparts.

Phyllis Walker, AFSCME Local 3800 president, said union members have often accepted better benefits as a trade-off for lower pay.

Under the University’s final contract offer, union members’ wages would be temporarily frozen and benefits would be reduced, which Walker said is unacceptable.

Anthony Reel, an accounts specialist in the University’s department of surgery and a “fair-share” AFSCME Local 3800 member, said he doesn’t believe the University is bargaining in good faith, but he does not think the contract is worth striking over.

Fair-share union members pay 85 percent of regular union dues and cannot vote, but they can legally strike.

“In the end, no matter how poorly the University has been negotiating, it’s still a better contract than outside (the University),” Reel said. “For me, it’s strictly a matter of, ‘Would I have a better life off campus in this job?’ The answer is no.”

Other union members agree with the union’s decision to strike but said they cannot afford to picket.

Jon Jacklitch, a senior administrative specialist in the department of family practice and community health, said he will not strike. Jacklitch said he became a full union member before the strike vote

earlier this month just so he could vote to reject the University’s contract, but he said he would not be able to support himself and his daughter if he went on strike.

Although he cannot strike, he said he believes in the cause because he would pay $80 to $100 more each pay period for health care under the University’s final contract offer.

He said he is not afraid to cross picket lines because most union members would not recognize him and he does not care what other union members think.

“I know two other union people, and I’m not going to lose their respect,” he said.

Some union members who do not want to strike are reluctant to talk about it.

Walker said they are likely worried about how they will be treated by pro-strike employees, but she said the union is working for all its members, regardless of whether they choose to strike.

Jesse Stahl, a 23-year-old employee in the Coffman Union bookstore and an AFSCME Local 3800 fair-share member, said he was glad he could not vote on the contract proposal.

He said he probably will not strike because he is young and the health-care issues do not affect him much. He also said he does not want to let down other union members.

Although he does not want to strike, he said, he understands other union members’ concerns.

While union leaders have suggested that University administrators pay more for health care than lower-paid workers, Casey said that is not the answer.

“Maybe they could pay more, but I don’t feel that’s fair,” she said. “I don’t think someone wants to pay more just because someone makes less than they do. (The University’s administrators) worked long and hard to get there.”