Union supporters behaved reasonably at speech

The Wednesday editorial “Union behavior at speech was childish” attacks American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800 union members and student supporters for allegedly “childish” behavior at University President Bob Bruininks’ talk. I strongly disagree with this assessment.

Specifically, I think the Daily owes an apology to University worker and AFSCME 3800 President Phyllis Walker for false and borderline libelous claims about her behavior at the forum and her intelligence. Since she is the only person named in the editorial, the Daily implies she was responsible for “insults and personal attacks” at the forum and accuses her (and other unnamed union supporters) of “displaying a complete lack of understanding of University fund raising and management.”

Phyllis Walker behaved in an exemplary and polite way at the forum, which anyone who attended the event – even Bruininks – would verify. Walker waited patiently to ask her question, identified herself, asked the question, listened politely to Bruininks’ (rude and arrogant) response and sat down when Bruininks finished answering. To imply she was in any way responsible for “insults and rude personal attacks” is totally false.

And to claim Walker has no understanding of University management is an insult that is also untrue. As president of AFSCME Local 3800, Walker has served on dozens of University committees over the years, including more than six years on the University-wide labor-management committee. She is extremely well informed of issues surrounding University management.

Getting back to the State of the University forum, I want to make it clear that Bruininks was never interrupted during his 40-minute-long presentation. Not by students, not by AFSCME workers, not by anybody.

Students in the audience silently held up small signs in support of clerical workers during his speech. This certainly created a politically charged environment, but it wasn’t anything approaching “raucous,” the term the Daily used in the headline of the Oct. 3 article about the speech.

When the question-and-answer session came, students and union members who lined up to speak were threatened by the moderator repeatedly before anyone even asked a question. They were told multiple times they would be cut off if their questions were not “appropriate” and the forum would be ended if deemed inappropriate by the moderator. The moderator did everything she could to stave off more controversial questions.

This intimidation and maneuvering by the moderator – before even a single clerical worker or student spoke – is what destroyed the environment of “intelligent debate and discourse” that the Daily editorial board says the union should have engaged in with Bruininks at the event. This created the climate that led two of the people asking questions to not want to state their names.

In my opinion, the two questioners who did not give their names were justified in not doing so, considering the hostile environment created by the moderator and the real possibility of retaliation for asking pointed questions to the University president. Would a low-level worker at a private company feel comfortable publicly challenging their company’s CEO?

The only thing that happened at the State of the University speech that Daily editors could find even remotely objectionable would be when students who had not yet been called on (and it was becoming clear that they were never going to be called on) yelled out a response to something Bruininks said. But even Bruininks did not object at the time to this back-and-forth pandering – he was engaged in the dialogue and trying to answer the questions the students raised.

The editorial board can say the union should engage in rational dialogue with Bruininks, but it is kind of hard to do that when the guy has not been willing to even meet with the union since a brief meeting when he first became president. And Bruininks’ negotiating committee has stonewalled the union negotiating committee since May – saying “no” to every union proposal and instead demanding we accept a wage freeze and doubling or tripling of our health-care costs and no job security, with our mouths shut.

It is solely Bruininks’ fault that he now has to deal with union leaders and students asking difficult questions in public forums. If he would have met or negotiated with us months ago, things would be different.

Now Bruininks will have to deal with more than just uncomfortable questions. On Oct. 21 there will be a strike by the University’s largest union, unless he is willing to negotiate a fair contract before then. The ball is in his court.

Brad Sigal is the senior office specialist in the School of Public Health and treasurer and a union negotiating committee member of AFSCME Local 3800. Send comments to [email protected]