Strikers, U refuse to budge

Jake Weyer

While striking clerical workers protested Tuesday, University President Bob Bruininks said the University has already given workers its best contract offer.

Although the University will allow the union to redistribute funds among its members, the total amount of money that can go toward the union’s contract cannot change, he said.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800, the union representing approximately 1,800 full-time University clerical workers, began striking Tuesday after negotiations with the University reached an impasse Monday night.

University officials said they have been flexible in contract negotiations by allowing the union to rearrange the contract money. One possible change the union could make is to provide more money to the lowest-paid workers and less to the higher-paid workers. The University cannot, however, afford to add money to the contract, officials said.

“It’s very difficult to resolve these issues if the demand is to put more money on the table,” Bruininks said. “We don’t have any wiggle room on the economics of this.”

Financially, he said, the University has nothing else to give. If the University agreed to the union’s final offer, 300 to 400 employees would have to be laid off, he said. More than 500 have already lost their jobs.

The union’s final proposal included step increases, or 2 percent wage increases, for 2004 and 2005 and an additional 2.5 percent increase in 2005. The union also proposed keeping the current health-care plan. Bruininks said the University’s best offer included the elimination of step increases, a 2.5 percent wage increase in 2005 and a lump sum of $200 for employees in January.

University officials said they cannot deviate from the budget because the University already faces large cuts in the coming years.

Chief financial officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said the University must make a $15 million to $20 million budget cut for 2005. He said 2004 expenses exceed the revenue plan the University has in place.

More than $5 million of the cuts for 2005 will come from support units, including the Office of Budget and Finance, the Office of Student Affairs, the Board of Regents and Facilities Management. Some employee positions in these areas will not be filled, and some employees will be laid off, Pfutzenreuter said.

The University will cut between $9 million and $12 million from departments and cut $4 million worth of books and other materials to compensate for inflation.

Pfutzenreuter said 65 percent of the University’s budget goes toward employees. The rest is largely utilities, such as heat and electricity. If the University added money to AFSCME Local 3800’s contract, some money could be taken from other areas, but the University would ultimately have to make up for the loss in more layoffs, he said.

Picketing in the rain

Forty-five percent of the University’s clerical workers joined Tuesday’s strike.

Though more than half the union members went to work, Katie Quan, chairwoman of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California-Berkeley, said the impact of the strike could still be significant.

“In a situation where the employees who are on strike perform essential duties that cannot be covered, that’s a situation that will have a tremendous effect, although the number might be small,” Quan said.

Though many AFSCME Local 3800 members picketed in front of buildings in which they work, other union members and supporters walked around campus in groups, chanting and holding picket signs.

Peter Chiarelli, an assistant to the registrar in the dentistry department and an AFSCME Local 3800 member, picketed in front of Moos Tower on Tuesday. Most members are prepared to strike for weeks if they have to, he said.

“We aren’t selfish,” Chiarelli said. “We would be willing to help if (the University was) willing to help.”

He said union members were not discouraged by Tuesday’s weather.

Most union members signed up for four-hour picket shifts in front of specific buildings.

Sophomore Colin Schwensohn picketed between classes Tuesday with his mother Jane Schwensohn, a clerical worker in the department of restorative sciences.

“It’s my health care being affected too,” Colin said.

Other union members joined picket lines during their breaks.

Greg Priester, a janitor in Eddy Hall and a Teamsters Local 320 member, picketed with AFSCME Local 3800 members during his morning break and said many other teamsters will join picket lines during their breaks.

Strike’s end unclear

AFSCME Local 3800 and the University have not set a date for mediation, and it is unclear how long a strike could last.

The length of a strike will depend on each side’s determination and how difficult the University’s budget crisis really is, said Hoyt Wheeler, a University of South Carolina management professor.

John Kuderka, who mediated the case, said it was not unusual to end the mediation early. Kuderka said both parties know the Bureau of Mediation Services is available for future mediation, and they could also settle the case independently, he said.

– Patricia Drey and Jessica Weaver contributed to this report.