Local union doubles in size

Three councils from the workers’ union merged, creating a 40,000-member union.

Bryce Haugen

The union that represents approximately 3,200 University clerical workers, technicians and health-care employees just doubled in size.

This summer, three American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees councils affirmed merger plans at separate special conventions. The new union, Council 5, has 40,000 members.

Eight hundred delegates from Fridley, Minn., to Duluth, Minn., met in Bloomington, Minn., last weekend to formally organize for the first time. They elected a new executive board, approved a new constitution and celebrated what members said they hope is the beginning of better times for a union hit hard by state budget cuts.

Matter of survival

With membership rolls in steep decline, troubled unions are returning to familiar tactics, said Gladys McKenzie, senior business executive for Council 5.

“We’re going back to the basic union principal of, ‘in unity there’s strength,’ ” she said.

Dan Dinndorf, Council 5 spokesman, said the idea of merging has been around for a while.

“Now things are dire enough that it had to happen,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of making the union more effective; it’s a matter of survival.”

With pooled resources, AFSCME leaders are now looking to centralize and improve programs for member organizing, education, communication, research and political action.

Dinndorf said political action is particularly important for AFSCME because its members’ paychecks come from the government. He said the union will hire a full-time staff devoted to supporting labor-endorsed candidates and lobbying at the Capitol.

“We need to have an impact on the budget process,” he said.

Before the merge, Dinndorf said, each union had its own decentralized political unit. Now, they will be able to speak with one voice on behalf of their membership and the services they provide, he said.

In her office in Heller Hall, standing next to the “philosophy chicken,” the department’s stuffed mascot, clerical worker Susan Wittel said she thinks the merger was wise.

“I’ve always thought that at the University, our unions have been fighting a losing battle,” the 17-year AFSCME member said.

She said the merger will improve the situation because “there’s strength in numbers.”

University represented

At the convention, Council 5 delegates elected 40 people to its new executive council. Two of them, Phyllis Walker and Candace Lund, work at the University.

Walker, the president of AFSCME Local 3800, said she plans to use her new position to fight for resources for the 1,600 clerical workers she represents.

That could benefit all University employees, she said.

“(The new council has) an agenda of increasing the number of locals. I’d like to see some of the effort here,” she said.

Several members of nonunion employee groups, including University faculty and civil service workers, have contacted her about organizing their own union, she said.

“If the faculty were organizing, it could have a snowball effect,” she said. “If front-line workers saw (them) organizing, it would have a positive impact on their own attraction to organizing.”

Lund, who represents 1,100 University technicians as president of AFSCME Local 3937, said expanding membership on campus would increase the union’s collective bargaining clout.

Angie Stehr, a union clerical worker in the Carlson School of Management Business Career Center, said she’s optimistic about the merger’s objectives.

“The goal of the merger would be to try to avoid strikes,” she said.