United we stand, united we fall

Whether stable or on strike, unions have a long history on campus

Mike Rose

On the night of Sept. 20, two embattled sides sat down for one last time.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union came to the negotiation table after spending more than two weeks off the job. Millions of dollars had been lost and they were running out of time.

University officials sat down having endured days of public scrutiny, some coming from top politicians. Instead of a smooth transition to a new school year, the University was forced to deal with picketers, protests and constant questioning.

By the end of the night, the two sides settled. AFSCME ultimately proved to be in more desperate need, as they relented on their proposal and accepted roughly what the University had been offering all along.

Yet the story of labor unions on campus is not just one of struggle, disagreement and dissatisfaction. In fact, the University has a long history of relative labor stability, with only a few noted work stoppages.

This is a snapshot of the changing nature of unionized labor and where it stands at the University.

Unionizing the ‘U’

The history of organized labor on campus is a complex tale, said Hy Berman, a retired University labor history professor.

The labor union movement on campus began with teachers and faculty in the early 1900s. However, these organizations were weak, unsuccessful and ultimately squashed by the time World War I began, Berman said.

In fact, many of these educators were fired for trying to organize, he said. Others simply left the University.

Other unions attempted to form around this time, but no group was truly effective, Berman said.

Holding back Minnesota public-sector employees was their inability to legally organize – or strike – in Minnesota.

Labor organizations could meet and confer, but they had no collective bargaining rights.

This was all prior to the Minnesota Public Employees Labor Relations Act of 1971, which drastically altered the union landscape.

For the first time, public employees – including University workers – could legally organize and strike.

In the years after PELRA, the University saw unions known today begin to take shape.

Although the Teamsters were recognized on campus dating back to 1964, they were much different from the post-PELRA unit. For one, the Teamsters were a much larger group, comprised of health-care workers, police officers and maintenance and service workers.

What PELRA did is break down bargaining units into smaller unions. The police and health-care workers both formed their own unions in 1973, with the health-care workers forming the first of three AFSCME branches now recognized on campus. The police later shifted to Law Enforcement Labor Services in 1995, removing themselves completely from the Teamsters.

A University trades union, which covers maintenance and construction workers, formed in 1980. The remodeled Teamsters unit, now the second largest union on campus, also covered some maintenance workers as well as a variety of other professions, such as icemakers and bookbinders.

By 1993, AFSCME had added its two additional branches – technical and clerical workers. In 2003, the clerical workers, the largest union currently on campus, went on strike. In 2007, the three AFSCME branches formed a coalition.

And although faculty on the Twin Cities campus remains non-unionized, faculty at the Duluth and Crookston campuses became unionized in 1980 and 2005, respectively. Together, they form the University Education Association.

Overall, roughly 25 percent of University employees are unionized.

Kristen Houlton, a CLA employee who wrote a case study on AFSCME’s 2003 strike, said chances are slim that the Twin Cities campus faculty will join the unionized ranks.

The problem facing faculty, Houlton said, is the size and diversity of their group. Since PELRA determines appropriate bargaining units, faculty would have to reach a common agreement – a difficult task, she said.

“(PELRA) provides a logistical challenge to unions,” Houlton said.

The First Strike

Before AFSCME went on strike in 2003, the University had gone six decades without a strike.

It was October 1942 when the Service Employees union local 113 (AFL) went on strike, taking more than 450 University employees away from their jobs, marking the first time employees ever went on strike at the University.

The union, which represented librarians, medical workers and food service workers among others, had a dispute with the University over the creation of a labor board to deal with employee problems.

Much like this fall, picket lines formed around campus. Shipping trucks were restricted from entering. The loss in workers slowed down the University library and hospital, among other locations.

Then-Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen stepped in and called off the strike a day later. However, the dispute did not end there.

Tensions continued to boil, and, like with AFSCME in 2003 and 2007, another strike was not far off.

In January 1944, the Local 113 went on strike again, this time arguing over wages and, like before, the creation of a labor board.

A new governor, Edward Thye, intervened this time around. After five days and numerous disrupted classes, a settlement was reached.

Much of the strike talk in those days wasn’t too different from what was voiced in recent weeks.

Norman Carle, union spokesman, rallied fellow members.

“Our organization needs every employee in the University so we can be successful,” he said, in a Daily archived story. “And we will be successful.”

Then-University President Walter Coffey responded to the union’s demands.

“The regents have stated to the union that they pledge their efforts to a removal of this difference,” he said, in a Daily archived article.

Neither strike was highly successful, Hy Berman said. Not only were strikers violating Minnesota law, they were also striking during wartime.

“Wartime strikes, if not illegal, were not looked upon in great favor,” he said.

The Union Influx

The United Auto Workers union strike against General Motors two weeks ago involved 73,000 workers in 16 states. However, the ability to organize such a large effort might be dwindling as union presence in America generally declines.

In 2006, about 12 percent of American workers were in a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This was down from 2005 and is part of a general decline since 1983, when union membership was at 20 percent.

And the public anticipates this trend will continue. An August 2007 Gallup poll found that only 19 percent of Americans who responded felt unions would be stronger in the future, as opposed to 45 percent who felt they would be weaker.

But the decline in unions can’t be attributed to negative public perception.

The same Gallup poll indicated that 60 percent of Americans approved of unions.

What is happening, some scholars and experts argue, is that the workplace is evolving. Technological advancements are putting the emphasis on skilled, individual workers, not unions.

“The new rules of the technological economy mean smaller firms and more individualized work, not assembly lines,” wrote Tim Kane, Ph.D., for the Heritage Foundation in 2006.

This idea of an individually oriented workplace appeals to Patrick Russell, an AFSCME employee in the payroll office and a graduate of the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

“I would prefer to have my work judged,” Russell said, “and have the value attached to it from what I do specifically.”

Russell became an AFSCME member automatically upon taking his job, but this didn’t mean he was firmly dedicated to the union.

In fact, Russell voted against the recent strike. When it began Sept. 5, he went to work

“I didn’t feel the union was reflecting my views,” he said.

Russell wasn’t the only one who stayed off the picket lines. In his office of 12, six workers are in AFSCME. Russell said they all reported to work.

“People just wanted to take what the University gave,” he said. “They weren’t really opposed to the strike; they weren’t really for the strike.”

Unions in America, he said, have many old-time members who feel like they need to maintain their jobs for a lifetime. This isn’t consistent with the new realities of the work world, Russell said.

“It’s a fluid marketplace,” he said, “and here we were (in AFSCME) haggling over 1 percent. You can go somewhere else. You can work.”

Only time will tell what new ideas and new trends will mean for unions.

Administration and Unions

Whatever the national trends in union strength might be, unions are still a factor on campus. And they need to coexist with University administration.

University President Bob Bruininks, who grew up with a union-member father in Grand Rapids, Mich., said he understands the need for organized labor.

“I’m very comfortable with the concept, the thought and the influence of unions in the academic life of the University,” he said.

Bruininks said it’s important to allow workers to organize if they feel that it’s necessary.

“We have an important obligation to respect that,” he said.

The campus unions, Bruininks said, provide a rich and diverse workforce that is healthy for the University. Such a diverse workforce can be difficult to manage, however.

He said the key to building a successful relationship between unions and the University is an emphasis on openness and continued dialogue between the two.

Bruininks expressed disappointment with some of the protests and disruptions during the recent strike. He said the Board of Regents meeting interrupted by protesters in particular was disappointing because it didn’t reflect University ethics.

“What really matters is that we come together at the end of the day, no matter what our disagreements are,” Bruininks said, “and treat each other with respect.”

The Future

The future of unions is hard to predict.

Berman said he felt a lack of tax revenue going toward higher education could put more strain on the lowest-paid workers at higher education institutions. This, he said, might make strikes more commonplace on university campuses in the coming years.

Houlton said University administration is drifting from the needs of union workers and is to blame for recent labor unrest.

“They’ve totally lost it,” she said, “(the University is) becoming a union-busting institution.”

Houlton said union participation at the national level is in a reorganizational stage, which could lead to a reverse of the current trend away from unionized labor.

Barb Bezat, president of the AFSCME Local 3937, said she didn’t believe union participation was declining nationally.

“We are on the upswing,” she said. “We are on the threshold of even greater growth than last year.”

Bezat said she expects unionized workers to be a mainstay on campus.

“I’m excited by the prospect of strengthening our own union here,” she said. “There’s a place for unions on this campus.”

Obviously, the story of on-campus unionized labor is open to disagreement. Everyone involved brings their own unique perspective to the issue.

One thing can be generally agreed upon, however: Harmony between employees and employers makes life easier and is ultimately desired by all, which Bruininks summed up by referencing his favorite African proverb:

“Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.”