U unions take strike votes amid negotiations

TBy Jake Weyer Two unions representing thousands of University employees have decided to take strike votes during contract negotiations that union officials say are going nowhere.

Teamsters Local 320, the union representing 1,300 University employees including custodial, food service, maintenance and trash service employees, is currently collecting strike-vote ballots it mailed to its members two weeks ago.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800, which represents 1,800 University clerical workers, will take a strike vote Aug. 27.

University workers have never gone on strike before, according to Minnesota’s Bureau of Mediation Services.

Patti Dion, director of the University’s Office of Human Resources, said if workers choose to strike, the University has plans in place for continuing operations, though she declined to go into detail about those plans.

“We are still optimistic that we can come to an agreement,” she said.

Both unions have been in contract negotiations with University administration officials since spring over proposed wage freezes and changes to health care, vacations and other benefits.

Following a cut in state funding, the University announced plans this spring to freeze employee wages for one year and increase health-care premiums, which unions said essentially amounts to a pay cut.

AFSCME Local 3800 President Phyllis Walker questioned the University’s negotiating tactics.

“Saying ‘no’ is not negotiating,” Walker said. She said she hopes the University will begin budging on some of the contract issues when they see how serious union members are. Most members are expected to vote in favor of striking, Walker said.

Sue Mauren, head of Teamsters Local 320, is also confident that members will vote “yes,” which does not guarantee a strike.

Teamsters Local 320 has taken two strike votes since its creation in the early 1970s. Membership voted to strike both times, but no action was taken because agreements were reached.

Mauren said this time is different.

“Members are taking this very seriously,” she said. “The mood out there is different than anything I’ve ever seen before.”

AFSCME Local 3800 has also voted to strike in the past, but has never taken action. This is the first time the union’s negotiating committee has ever recommended a strike vote to members, Walker said.

“To be honest, (a strike vote) is nothing new,” said Skip Staehnke, a senior building and grounds worker and a member of Teamsters Local 320. “Not that we don’t accept the idea of doing more for less, but for crying out loud, keep the basics for us.”

Staehnke voted to strike, but he said he is hoping it does not come to that.

Margaret Sanders, a University food service worker and member of Teamsters Local 320, picked up a second job this summer after her hours were cut in half. She said she will have to keep the job and work

12 ½ hours, five days per week to get by during the school year.

“I need this second job just to keep even,” Sanders said.

Not every union member is feeling the strain.

“A strike should only be implemented under dire circumstances,” said Kitty Casey, a senior accounts assistant for University Bookstores and an AFSCME Local 3800 member. “I don’t think these are dire.”

Casey said if a strike was to occur, she would cross the picket line. She said she is happy with her job at the University and she will not be severely impacted if the proposed benefits changes are implemented.

“I question whether both sides are really bargaining in good faith,” Casey said. “I think (AFSCME Local 3800) is bargaining not so much for members, but to justify their existence to members.”

Walker said AFSCME Local 3800 is bargaining for the good of all of its members.

If a strike was to occur at the University, union officials said picket lines would be formed in front of campus buildings.

“The goal (of a picket line) is not to inconvenience students or families,” Mauren said. “The goal is to get a fair and reasonable contract.”

Teamsters Local 320 will announce the results of its vote Tuesday afternoon. If the vote is in favor of a strike, the state would have to be notified and the University would have to be given a 10-day cooling-off period to prepare before a strike could occur.

Mauren said the union has no intention of striking before its next round of negotiations scheduled for Aug. 28.

AFSCME Local 3800 will vote and announce the results Aug. 27. The union goes back into negotiations Sept. 2. If no agreement is reached, a committee will evaluate the University’s final offer and decide whether to recommend a required second strike vote. State notification and a 10-day cooling-off period are also required before action is taken.

Jake Weyer covers faculty and staff and welcomes comments at [email protected]