AFSCME union strike lingers

>Striking veterinary workers not compromising animal care

As the strike approaches the end of another week without a settlement, striking veterinary technicians are slowly returning to their jobs at the Veterinary Medical Center in St. Paul.

Darcy Farmer, a senior veterinary technician at the Veterinary Medical Center, hasn’t gone to work since the strike began.

“Financially, I can’t afford to be on strike any longer,” she said.

Farmer estimated 80 percent of the Veterinary Medical Center’s veterinary technicians went on strike. Some have since returned to their jobs, she said.

However, University officials are not releasing official numbers of striking workers by department, said Lori Ann Vicich, communications director for the Office of Human Resources.

Jan Williams, communications director for the College of Veterinary Medicine, estimated half of the college’s veterinary technicians were on strike.

There are 140 people in the bargaining unit, many of whom are veterinary technicians, she said.

Technicians are similar to nurses, with duties like inserting catheters, drawing blood, taking X-rays and monitoring the animals, she said. Veterinary technicians are also responsible for teaching.

Dr. Laura Molgaard, dean for academic and student affairs of the College of Veterinary Medicine, said the care of the animals has not been compromised and remaining technicians and veterinarians have been working to make up for the missing workers.

Technicians often work with senior veterinary students who are doing hands-on procedures during their clinical sessions at the hospital, Molgaard said.

She said they also work with first- and second-year students in basic labs.

Farmer said she doesn’t know who’s teaching the younger students but has heard some senior students were teaching those labs.

“It’s kind of like the blind leading the blind,” Farmer said.

Dr. Robert Washabau, professor of medicine and department chairman of the department of veterinary clinical sciences, said he wasn’t aware of senior students teaching in a formal setting.

Lori Schmieg is also a senior veterinary technician and said she might return to her job within the next week.

“If there’s no talks, I may have to consider going back,” Schmieg said.

She said she’s concerned about veterinary students.

“Students are going to be pretty hard-hit by this,” she said. “When they’re on clinical is when they have their hands-on experience.”

Molgaard said the strike has forced teachers to approach teaching in new ways.

“In a way, this strike has required people to be creative and think outside the box,” she said. “We’ve provided them with information about other approaches to consider.”

Washabau said he and other instructors have been able to expand teaching techniques, such as using debates and topic teaching, during the strike.

The hospital usually has a large case load to begin with, he said, and it’s still receiving more cases than most veterinary medical hospitals in the nation.

He said while the hospital is at nearly 75 percent capacity now, between the first three to five days of the strike the hospital only accepted emergency cases.

Farmer said she stands by her decision to strike.

“We’re not greedy mongrels, we just want to do our job and be able to pay our rent at the same time,” Farmer said. “I miss my patients.”

Molgaard said she’s thankful for the extra work people have put in over the past couple of weeks but looks forward to the return of the striking technicians.

“We very much value their contributions,” she said.

-Ahnalese Rushmann

AFSCME support committee raises $87,000 in donations

Without the benefit of their paychecks, some striking workers have been able to utilize some outside assistance.

A strike fund has been established – with the help of various donors – to provide some temporary assistance to those on strike.

The ‘U’ Workers Support Fund is currently at $87,000, said Jennifer Lovaasen, communications coordinator for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, Council 5.

Along with donations from within the union, Lovaasen said University staff, faculty and students have made contributions.

Other unions have contributed as well. These include the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees and the Service Employees International Union, among others.

Lovaasen said the support fund is strong but doesn’t offset the need for a new contract.

“All we want is a raise that keeps up with inflation,” she said. “We’d rather be working with students than walking the picket line.”

Kelly Ahern chairs the AFSCME mutual support committee, which is composed of nine members who discuss how to distribute funds.

Ahern said everyone who has applied so far will receive some type of aid. On Tuesday, the first support checks were mailed; 35 checks were distributed.

Troy Karkula, a nurse at Boynton Health Service, said he applied for aid Wednesday. He said he would be using the money to help pay off his mortgage.

“I need it to keep my house,” he said.

Some help has also been provided by local business owners.

Andie Martinez is the program director for CHANCE, a collaborative effort of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood and the Humphrey Institute to increase neighborhood engagement.

Earlier this month, Martinez led an effort to raise support for the strikers among West Bank community members.

“Personally, I totally support the union,” she said. “What they’re asking for is fair.”

Martinez got six West Bank businesses to pledge support for the strikers. The businesses offered to provide meeting and classroom space, use of bathrooms and food discounts.

At the North Country Co-Op, located at 1929 S. 5th St., strikers are welcome to use the restrooms, place their pickets in a designated spot while shopping and receive 5 percent off their groceries, said Katie Manthey, the store’s financial manager.

The co-op has also housed some classes in its front patio area, Manthey said.

“We’re happy to help,” she said.

Erdoan Akguc, who owns Mapps Coffee and Teas with his wife, said he wanted to help out others in his community.

“We know most of these people,” he said. “We’re all West Bankers.”

Mapps has hosted many classes since the strike began, Akguc said. Often, two classes have been held at a time, one on each floor of the building.

In addition to class space, the coffee shop has provided bathroom use and an occasional free drink to strikers, Akguc said.

Members of AFSCME have been on strike for 16 days and counting – equaling the length of AFSCME’s 2003 strike.

A full-time employee on strike would have missed roughly 96 hours of work.

According to the University’s Office of Human Resources, the average AFSCME worker earns roughly $17 an hour. Forfeiting 96 hours of work at this pay rate would result in a loss of $1,632.

-Mike Rose