U’s largest union OKs strike by mid-October

Jake Weyer

The University’s largest union voted to reject its contract offer and authorize a strike, union officials said Friday.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800 – which represents 1,800 University clerical workers – could begin striking by mid-October. The decision came after months of negotiations with the University over health-care costs, wage freezes and other benefit reductions.

AFSCME Local 3800 members process paychecks and financial aid, distribute grades, help professors plan lectures and handle most University paperwork. Eighty-eight percent of the union’s membership voted Wednesday and Thursday, and 63 percent of those voted to authorize a strike.

Phyllis Walker, AFSCME Local 3800 president, said she hopes the University will call the union back to the negotiating table before striking begins, but said members are ready and willing to strike if no negotiations take place.

Board of Regents Chairman David Metzen said he was disappointed with the union’s vote. He respects the bargaining process, he said.

“I don’t think anybody wants a strike, whether it’s management or the workers,” Metzen said. “But it’s part of the process and the right of the unions to do that.”

Carol Carrier, vice president for the University’s Office of Human Resources, said the University is prepared to carry out normal operations in the event of a strike, but she said it has not created a detailed plan. She said non-striking employees might have to take on extra work.

“Usually in these situations people will pick up work that they normally don’t have to do,” she said.

The University hopes to hold more talks with the union, Carrier said.

Two other unions representing more than 2,000 University employees voted against striking.

Teamsters Local 320, the union representing 1,400 University employees, including custodial, maintenance and food service workers, and AFSCME Local 3937, which represents 1,100 University technical workers, both voted to accept the University’s terms.

Unlike AFSCME Local 3800, the other unions had tentative agreements with the University, and their leaders did not recommend a strike.

Walker said AFSCME Local 3800’s plans are not affected by other unions’ decisions.

“Their members were forced by the University, to make a tough decision and one that they should not have had to make,” she said.

Jody Ebert, president of AFSCME Local 3937, said her membership might have voted differently under better economic circumstances.

“It’s a difficult time to choose an option like (striking),” she said. “I don’t think we feel happy. The people I’ve talked to don’t feel the contract is a good one for our group.”

Some teamsters said they think their union made the wrong decision.

“I think it’s the stupidest move we’ve ever made,” said Skip Staehnke, a building and grounds worker and Teamsters Local 320 member. “We’re going to be hurting for a very long time because of this decision.”

Ebert said she supports AFSCME Local 3800’s decision and said her union’s members might join picket lines during lunch breaks.

Non-striking union members cannot legally picket during work hours, Carrier said.

AFSCME Local 3800 is still discussing where picket lines will be, but Walker said they will be set up where they will hurt the University the most.

Although she said the union does not want to inconvenience students and faculty, she said the University needs to feel the loss of its clerical workers.

“We really support students,” she said. “Students and the lowest-paid workers become the scapegoat for the University.”

Because of some instructors’ policies not to cross picket lines, a strike could force some students to go off campus for class.

Melissa Williams, a graduate student and teaching assistant in American studies, said she will move her class off campus if there is a strike. Williams’ class of 27 might meet with her individually or in small groups at coffee shops, she said.

Williams said she knows of several professors who will also honor picket lines by holding classes off campus.

Less work, less pay?

Picketing workers might be hard-pressed to find money to support themselves and their families during a strike, but some said they would lose more under the University’s proposed health-care and benefits changes.

Steff Yorek, an office specialist in the University’s surgery department, said she would lose three weeks of pay next year under the University’s proposed changes.

“It seems unlikely that I’ll lose that much on strike,” she said. “I don’t see it as a choice.”

Unlike some unions, AFSCME Local 3800 has no strike fund. Walker said this is because the union keeps its dues as low as possible.

Instead, Walker said, AFSCME Local 3800 set up a hardship fund that which will provide for the neediest strikers as union members see fit. Students, faculty, staff and other unions have already made donations and are still collecting money, Walker said.

The University Baptist Church, where the strike vote results were announced, volunteered to function as a strike headquarters for union members. The church will provide a meeting place before and after pickets, hot meals and temporary daycare. Walker said she hopes to find another strike headquarters on the St. Paul campus, the West Bank and in Stadium Village.

Walker said a strike date will be announced this week.

– Jessica Weaver contributed to this report.