More to the clerical union’s strike than numbers and money

John Troyer

One of the problems with writing about labor strikes is the cloud of numbers produced while describing the situation. Numbers, in their sublime and terrifying efficiency, can both numb the senses and obscure the more important concerns regarding pay rates, health care and raises. I want to leave the topic of numbers behind, if only for a moment, while discussing the broader points raised by the clerical union’s strike.

I support the strike and believe the contemporary labor movement (especially in Minnesota) could learn a thing or two from the clerical union – a group of routinely overlooked workers who finally took a stand for not only monetary reasons but also principle. The problems facing the clerical workers and the University administration involve both a contract dispute and a Legislature and governor who did nothing but aggravate the situation.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s mantra about not raising taxes in Minnesota is precisely the problem with an entire generation of elected officials who, in the name of budget efficiency, let the infrastructure of states fall apart. And while a pledge to not raise taxes may be packaged and sold to the public as responsible, it is the worst kind of policy imaginable for the fiscal well-being of a state.

We might not pay right now, but the cuts will have to be adjusted into other numbers when, for example, the roads become completely unusable and the schools have mold growing in the ventilation systems. I want to bring these points out because it is groups such as Americans for Tax Reform, under the leadership of Grover Norquist (supported in Minnesota by the Center for the American Experiment, Minnesota Family Council and Taxpayers League of Minnesota) who have made taxes a crime against humanity.

I am not joking. In a recent interview on “Fresh Air with Terry Gross,” Norquist compared a suggested tax increase for the top income earners in the United States to the persecution of certain populations during the Nazi Holocaust. Indeed. More to the point, Norquist’s argument really makes sense to an entire group of elected representatives who, via what I can only suggest is faith-based economics, believe everything will just work out because of American ingenuity and enterprise. Thank God for the little things.

These illusory, faith-based economics bring me back to the real-time point: Taxes support infrastructure, such as roads, schools, public works and state universities. When the governor’s budget cut funding for the University, it did so at the expense of everyone on this campus and in the state. So, while the tuition numbers keep going up to cover costs, employees are being paid less and given fewer assurances about access to affordable health care. As a result of our American enterprise and ingenuity, the long-term opportunity offered by the University for an education (lest we forgot what a land-grant school is supposed to accomplish) dwindles.

On the question of education, another problem arises for the University, albeit indirectly, because of the strike. I do not know when or how it became an acceptable idea to discuss a University education as a product, but that is precisely how, for example, former University President Mark Yudof described it. Students became consumers and the knowledge offered by the workers manufacturing it became a product for faith-based economics’ older sibling – the marketplace of ideas.

Now, I know how fund raising keeps schools such as the University functioning because state money keeps getting cut. But the repeated use of laughable uber-efficient business models imparting other ridiculous words such as “synergy” when discussing an undergraduate education are used far too often. I also know how much money the University pays, for example, the top athletics program officials, and I wonder where all those six-figure salaries are going. Without question, athletics have been part of the University for a long time and I am sure the large team sports such as basketball and football produce revenue, least of which, to pay all those legal bills over the last three years. But isn’t it finally time to rethink what a land-grant university is supposed to provide – namely, an affordable education, not a consumer good manufactured by the robot-like machinations of an alienated labor force?

So I return to the all-too-invisible and forgotten-about University clerical workers, who have taken a stand against being taken for granted as manufacturing cogs, on principle. Despite the ubiquitous e-mail messages from the administration’s human resources department just shy of being outright threats, many of the people who work behind desks, whom most of us walk by without even noticing, are on the streets asking to be treated with dignity and respect. Money will always be important in negotiating contracts, but I do not think numbers can add anything more to these clerical workers’ simple request.

John Troyer’s column usually appears alternate Fridays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]