Strike buttons remind us to appreciate all University workers

Wanna button?” You may have been asked this question recently if you spend any time interacting with striking clerical workers. Something struck me as I looked at my button the other day and saw them proliferate on campus; something slightly unsettling, but also promising.

Why are we wearing the buttons now? Workers are on strike and people are encouraging them, yes, but is this the first time since the last University strike in 1944 that so many people have openly acknowledged their appreciation for University workers? Which workers are we supporting, just those on the picket lines or all “U of M Workers,” as the buttons say?

Custodial, maintenance and food service employees, represented by Teamsters Local 320, narrowly avoided a strike in contract negotiations earlier this month. University technical workers also approved their new labor contract by a slim margin. The new contracts pose challenges for these workers similar to those currently being protested by clerical workers. Are we wearing the buttons for them, too?

In general, the University community does not recognize the essential duties, sincere effort and often frustrating working conditions on the part of all University workers. I’m not talking about annual plaques and awards, but the kind of dialogue and interaction currently taking place between strikers and people who take the time to speak with them on the lines and wear the simple, yet significant, little buttons.

When this strike is over, one way or the other, let’s continue to support University workers. Talk to the people who process your student loans about something besides student loans. You might want to learn the names of the people who pick up after you and make sure the lights work. How about a “thanks” to the folks cooking your food and making your coffee, even if they didn’t just take your money and give you your change.

Do no wait for another strike to feel united with the people who make the University really work. Faculty, students and administrators might embody the University, but the soul of the place is in the people who show up every day and take care of most of the business for us.

About a year ago, someone offered me a different button. Following the Wellstone tragedy, the iconic green and white emblems became more than a token of campaign support. They represented a way of thinking and acting in which many people so fervently believed. Wellstone could no longer win the election, but the buttons persisted. One year later, those buttons are still on jackets and bags all over campus.

Now another opportunity to make a temporary slogan something more enduring presents itself. Regardless of your position on the strike, this is an opportunity to transcend politics and ideology, and perpetually recognize the people who are so much a part of University life.

Aaron North’s column appears alternate Tuesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]