University offer is fair and equitable

The strike notice issued by the University’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800 clerical unit is premised on the idea that the University’s contract offer is unfair or inequitable. That is simply wrong.

Let’s look at the facts: The members of the AFSCME Local 3800 clerical unit have been asked to make only the same sacrifices other University employees are making. So, what is really at issue in negotiations between the University and AFSCME Local 3800 clerical employees?

First, under its proposal, the University will continue to offer a competitive health-care package at a reasonable cost. However, like all employers, both public and private, the University is facing double-digit health-care cost increases. These costs have increased by 60 percent at the University in the last five years. Rather than cut benefits or reduce choice, as many employers have done, our proposal on health benefits maintains accessibility to a broad range of high-quality care.

But in order to maintain this strong package, we are asking employees to pay 10 percent toward the premium of the base plan for individual or family coverage in 2004. Per paycheck, that’s just under $15 for individuals or $37 for families. To help alleviate the impact of these changes, we will provide funding for a $200 one-time payment for all University employees making $65,000 or less.

With this new cost split, the employee share of health-care costs is still well below market averages. Employees nationally are paying, on average, 16 percent of the cost of individual health-care coverage and 27 percent of the cost of family coverage.

Second, the University will continue to provide competitive wages and offer generous vacation and sick-leave policies. Our regular studies of pay and benefits continue to demonstrate that we compare very favorably to both the public and private sectors. But we have been sensitive to the challenges lower-wage workers face. To address this, we set a $12 minimum wage, the highest of any public-sector employer in Minnesota. We will continue to support this commitment.

And though we were asked by the Legislature to agree to a two-year wage and salary freeze, we are limiting the freeze to one year for all of our employees – faculty, staff and administrators.

Starting in July, the University must reduce its budget once again by about $20 million and increase the cost of tuition for our students. Despite these continuing challenges, I have committed to a 2.5 percent increase for University employees in 2005.

Despite claims by AFSCME Local 3800, this is not a “distribution” problem. Compensation is determined based on a competitive marketplace for each job. While the job of each of our employees is important, the market dictates different salary ranges for different jobs. And we cannot commit restricted funds for other purposes such as increased compensation.

Finally, it is important to remember that other union employees at the University have already ratified the University’s contract offer. With these agreements, a majority of our represented employees have joined our nonrepresented employees in sharing difficult – but necessary – increases in health-care costs at a time when wages and salaries are not increasing.

These are reasonable, shared sacrifices to maintain the University’s strength in the face of additional cuts mandated by the historic $185 million cut in our state funding for the biennium.

We’re ready to resume bargaining with the AFSCME Local 3800 clerical unit. We don’t want a strike. However, we will not put academic programs and additional jobs at risk. We have already reduced employment by 500 positions, and I believe it is terribly wrong to pay for costs we cannot afford by eliminating additional valued employees at the University.

I care deeply about the University and the people who work here. We cannot be a great institution without great faculty and staff. We’ve worked hard to address this budget challenge in a way that is equitable for all employees, while maintaining the extraordinary quality of this University.

We need to be in this together; our real fight shouldn’t be with one another. We must make the case for the University to the people of Minnesota and their elected officials. Only in this way can we ensure that we’ll continue to be a great academic university and an excellent place to work for in years to come.

Bob Bruininks is the president of the University. Send comments to [email protected]