Clerical workers on strike

After talks broke down Monday, workers began the University’s first walkout since 1944.

The University’s largest employee union will begin a strike at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, the union announced Monday night.

Contract negotiations between the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800, the union representing 1,800 full-time University clerical workers, and the University reached an impasse at approximately 7 p.m. Monday.

The walkout is the University’s first union strike in almost 60 years.

Union members process paychecks and financial aid, send mail, calculate grade point averages, assist professors and work as receptionists, among other duties.

During the strike, University officials said, nonstriking employees, student workers and temporary employees will make up for the loss of clerical workers.

Carol Carrier, vice president in the University’s Office of Human Resources, said the University will carry out operations as usual.

“We are as prepared as we can be,” she said. “We may do some adjusting here and there as we go.”

The University’s final offer included a wage freeze in 2004, a $200 lump sum payment in January to compensate for higher health-care premiums, and a 2.5 percent wage increase in 2005, Carrier said.

Under that offer, single employees using the base health-care plan would pay approximately $15 more each pay period than they pay now. Families using the base plan would pay approximately $37 more per paycheck.

That part of the offer is unchanged from the proposal union members voted to reject in early October.

The University changed its original proposal by allowing lower-paid workers a $400 lump sum to compensate for health-care increases, while eliminating the lump sum for higher-paid workers. While the total amount of money the University would pay out in the lump sum would remain unchanged, it would be distributed differently, union officials said.

University President Bob Bruininks said the University’s final contract offer was reasonable and similar to offers accepted by other University employee unions.

“Under the circumstances, I would regard the University’s effort to compensate its employees as somewhat heroic,” Bruininks said.

He said the University is unable to put more money toward the union’s contract because of budget shortfalls.

The union has negotiated with the University for several months over proposed wage freezes, health-care cost increases and benefit reductions. The University plans to continue negotiating with the union, Bruininks said, but no date was set Monday night.

AFSCME Local 3800 president Phyllis Walker said she was unsure how long a strike would last.

“Some workers will have to get a temporary job. We’re encouraging them to do that,” Walker said.

Kelly Ahern Nelson, a member of Local 3800’s negotiating committee, said she does not expect the union and the University to reach an agreement this week.

Union members will rely on a strike fund to cover emergency needs during the strike. AFSCME International donated $50,000 to the strike hardship fund last week.

Lauren Smith, principal account specialist in the University mailroom and AFSCME Local 3800 member, said she had hoped the two sides would reach an agreement, but she was not surprised when they did not.

“I would stay out for weeks,” Smith said. “I really think people are going to die if they make the health-care optional, because I think they are going to drop it if they make it optional.”

John Remington, an industrial relations professor in the Carlson School of Management, said the first week of the strike is critical. It will determine whether the union can carry out a successful work stoppage and whether the University can tolerate it.

The two parties will probably make an assessment of their situation after the first week, Remington said.

Picketers plan to gather at 12 University locations Tuesday before heading to the picket lines.

Some University professors and teaching assistants will move classes off campus.

Melissa Williams, a graduate student in American studies, said she will hold her classes off campus Tuesday.

“The fact is, (the University) can’t do anything about it. If they impose any disciplinary action, there’s a good chance we’ll be unionized next year,” Williams said.

More than 150 professors are taking their classes off campus, affecting more than 4,000 students. The union was not able to accommodate all faculty who wished to take their classes off campus, Walker said.

– Patricia Drey contributed to this report.