Staff prepares to go on strike

by Mitch Anderson

Contract negotiations between the University and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union stalled last week, and now a labor strike looms.

AFSCME leaders unanimously rejected the University’s contract offer Friday night over what they claim to be unsatisfactory wage increases. All further negotiation sessions have ceased, and union members will vote Aug. 23 whether to go on strike.

Patti Dion, director of employee relations and member of the University negotiating team, said she felt the University’s offer was a fair one.

“We feel we have a good offer on the table, and it should not be an offer that would engender a strike,” she said. “This is a higher offer than they settled for two years ago.”

Four years ago, union members went on strike for 15 days when a compensation agreement could not be reached.

According to Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME Local 3800, the decision to strike is not one the union takes lightly.

“We know this is extremely serious,” she said. “We realize our members don’t have salaries that allow them to have large savings to live off while they’re on strike.”

According to union officials, wages for clerical, technical and health care workers have dropped 4.8 percent over the past five years compared to inflation while administrative salaries have increased by an average of 27 percent. Faculty salaries have increased 19 percent.

“If a salary increase is less than the inflation rate, then it isn’t a raise, it’s a pay cut,” Walker, said. “The membership has told me they feel this is a vicious cycle, and we need to stop it now before it gets worse.”

Lori Ann Vicich, director of communications for the Office of Human Resources, said it wasn’t fair to only compare union salaries to those of administrators. She said all University employees need to be considered when comparing wages.

“It always is a very, very difficult and delicate balancing act as to what we’re going to do that’s fair and equitable for employees and their increases,” she said. “We have to keep tuition in balance and be good stewards of government dollars.”

The crux of the debate, however, lies in how the wage increases are implemented.

Currently, University staff receives periodic pay raises – called “step increases” – that are used to reward employees for their experience, skills and loyalty.

These step increases are given in addition to the annual wage raises employees receive to offset the cost of living.

Walker said she felt the University was trying to include step increases as part of the cost-of-living adjustment.

“That’s just another way to take away our step increases and try and call it something else,” she said. “Step increases were never meant to be used to offset cost-of-living increases.”

Vicich said the step increases should be included when calculating total compensation.

“Step increases are real increases,” she said. “They cost the University real dollars and they add real dollars to employee paychecks.”

Vicich added that the University only has so much money to work with.

“We have a certain parameter that we can work within each year and we’re maxed out on that parameter this year,” she said.

With the AFSCME union representing more than 3,500 technical, clerical and health care workers on both the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses, the effects of a strike would be widely felt.

Dion said the University does have plans in place if union members decide to go through with the strike.

“We would naturally prefer that our employees not be on strike,” she said. “But we surely do have strike plans in place and would make the necessary preparations for how we would continue to operate should some number of employees go on strike.”

Under state law, the University is allowed to hire temporary replacement workers, but Walker said she feels the effects of a strike would be felt University-wide.

“Temp workers don’t know how to do our jobs. It’s nowhere near the same thing as having experienced workers at their posts,” she said. “Not only will the University not run as smoothly, but other departments might have to shut down.”

Although things may be heated for the time being, both sides aren’t against re-entering the negotiation process.

“If the University calls us back to the negotiating table, we’re definitely willing to go back,” Walker said. “We’re always willing to work out a settlement – that’s our goal, to get a settlement.”