Union is the goal for University professionals

by Jennifer Niemela

While University faculty members spent much of the past year involved in a controversial union drive, a collective bargaining effort among University civil service workers gained momentum. And with a Bureau of Mediation Services announcement of an election expected next week, another University union vote will soon be at hand.
Citing a lack of representation in administrative decisions and an arbitrary system of pay raises and job promotions, the University’s professional unit of civil services employees filed enough union signature cards last December to mandate an election. The roughly 2,200 professional employees include accountants, systems analysts, lab assistants and services specialists.
If a majority of the employees vote for a union, they will be represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME has helped organize the union drive, which began three years ago.
“A union contract is a good idea structurally to resolve issues,” said Steve Philson, senior scientist in chemistry. “A lot of people have jobs they like and bosses that don’t hassle them, but that’s not always the case. A lot of us are very isolated, and if something is wrong, who do we go to talk to? If we have a union, we go to talk to somebody to get some support and information.”
Many professional workers who support a union say they want a more democratic system of representation when decisions, such as how much vacation time they’ll receive, are made. Advocates point to the civil service committee, an appointed group, as an example of their lack of representation.
“The civil service committee has no real say in the policies that affect us,” said Kate Plaisance, scientist in agronomy.
In November, the committee went on record opposing the unionization of the professional employees.
Union advocates say the current system of pay raises and job promotions isn’t clear enough and that decisions to give someone a raise or promotion are arbitrary. They claim collective bargaining would give the supervisors and administrators more structure and accountability.
“You have to get lucky to get a raise or a promotion and have a boss with good managerial skills,” said Maria Klein, associate editor of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s monthly magazine. “Not all the supervisors here have good managerial skills.”
Some professional workers tried to organize in the early 1980s but failed to get enough employees to sign the union cards that allow them to hold an election.
Klein said one reason the group didn’t organize at that time was a stigma against professionals having collective bargaining.
“Professional workers are difficult to organize for three reasons,” she said. “One, because they’re highly educated, they feel they should be able to negotiate without the help of a union. Two, it’s a class issue. Historically, unions have consisted of blue-collar workers. It’s an unconscious elitism. Three, many people of our era don’t know a lot about unionization and the benefits it can have.”
Along with professionals at the Minnesota Historical Society, the University workers are the only professional civil service employees in Minnesota not represented by a union. The University’s clerical and technical workers are unionized with AFSCME already, and University laborers are represented by Teamsters.
Jeffrey Cookson, a program associate in minority affairs, noted that since University professionals are one of only two non-union groups of professional state employees, the stigma theory is unfounded.
“It’s a myth that professionals don’t unionize. They’d have us believe that,” he said. “I think it’s less than honest to suggest that professional workers won’t unionize.”
University professional workers are paid less than their state-employed counterparts. For example, a senior systems analyst starting at the University can expect to make about $27,500 per year, while a state-employed programmer/analyst starts at about $32,000, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Resources.
Despite this discrepancy, the professionals say they have a commitment to the University.
“If the question was how much money I made a year, I wouldn’t be working at the U,” said Cookson. “Working in a corporation isn’t what I wanted to do. I think a lot of (U employees) don’t have the fiscal concern that lends itself to the corporate world.”
Union advocates say the election for a faculty union that was voted down by 26 votes earlier this month won’t affect the outcome of their election.
“It helps that they lost by a narrow margin,” said Cookson, who acknowledged that it would have helped even more if the union advocates had won in the election. “But the professional workers realize that the concerns of the faculty are different.”
The employees are currently awaiting a decision by the Bureau of Mediation Services to determine who is eligible to vote in the union election. When the ruling is announced, the bureau will set an election date.