Labor unions struggle with universities nationwide

The gap between rich and poor is bigger than ever, despite a productive work force.

With inflation on the rise, North America’s largest federation of labor unions falling apart and a fluctuating economy, many college labor unions are fighting to stay afloat.

At the University, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union has struggled to enhance employee wages and benefits.

But the union members’ fight goes beyond any number the University could crunch.

Ed Foster, economics department chairman, said higher gas and petroleum prices reflect how producers are suffering a loss of income.

“With that loss, petroleum producers increase prices to compensate their own income, which overall hurts consumers,” Foster said.

University law professor Laura Cooper said many unionized workers are finding themselves “helpless” because they cannot override the employers’ power, nor can they control the economy.

The complications with inflation and the economy are factors in the local labor dispute, but the focus extends to gaining fair compensation.

“There is an increasing gap between rich and poor in this country, even though the work force is the most productive in history,” said Gladys McKenzie, chief negotiator for AFSCME Council 5.

Hamline University law professor David A. Larson said when the economy is tight, it makes sense for people to join and support unions.

“The problem is many union members have shot themselves in the foot,” Larson said.

He said unions become so engaged in legal relations and earn so much big-time media coverage that it scares the public away.

“Everything is chaotic, and with the AFL-CIO splitting up, it certainly doesn’t help union members gain support,” he said.

When inflation rates increase and downsizing occurs, unions can appear safe, he said.

If someone is not a union member as a worker, there are many reasons the worker could be terminated and only a handful of reasons why the worker would not be terminated.

“It’s like if I was a Bears fan and decided to fire you because you liked the Vikings,” Larson said.

It’s a funny paradox trying to get protected from termination by joining a union but being afraid to have employers see displays of support for unions, he said.

“The irony makes the education work force so vulnerable,” Larson said.

Justin Freiberg, an economics alumnus of the University, said labor union membership has declined due to a loss of tradition.

“The solidarity of unions from the 1950s is gone,” he said.

Labor struggles find themselves at universities across the nation regardless of location.

The University of Texas at Austin campus has found itself in the middle of a labor struggle that first reared its head in 2003.

Elaine Blodgett, a library assistant and Texas State Employees Union member, said the union’s past struggles have focused on increasing wages to market standards.

“After much pressure and time, a few years ago, a salary study was done that revealed the gap in (University of Texas) wages and market norms,” Blodgett wrote in an e-mail.

“However, nothing has been done to remedy that, and even with our raises in the meantime, our percentages are almost exactly the same as when the study was done,” she said.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison shares similar grievances with wage disputes.

Barb Petersen, food production assistant and blue-collar representative, said need for union wages increased when other benefits faltered.

“In the past, we’ve taken a low increase in wages because we didn’t have to pay for health insurance, but now we also have to start paying for that,” Petersen said.