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Student demonstrators in the rainy weather protesting outside of Coffman Memorial Union on Tuesday.
Photos from April 23 protests
Published April 23, 2024

Striking to end poverty wages at UMN

How others can help support striking employees.
Striking+to+end+poverty+wages+at+UMN
Image by Sarah Mai

For the first time in more than a decade, unionized workers on campus may go on strike. The members of Teamster Local 320, representing University of Minnesota service and maintenance workers, recently authorized a strike with 93% support. Negotiations with University AFSCME locals 3800, 3801, 3260 and 3937 have also stalled. Why, you might ask, are we facing a potential Striketober on campus? And why should it matter to students?

A core issue is the poverty wages of Teamster-represented employees. Nearly 10% of Teamsters responding to a recent survey reported being homeless in the past year, almost 25% went hungry and 40% worked a second job to make ends meet. Rather than pay Teamsters a living wage, the administration has hired temporary workers to fill Teamster jobs in the dining halls and pays them as much as $5 more an hour. The administration is also demanding they give up their right to bargain over health benefits. 

Similarly, the administration has refused to agree to livable wages for the clerical, technical and healthcare workers represented by AFSCME. Current pay is below that of comparable public sector and higher ed employers. The administration has rejected AFSCME’s proposal to make Juneteenth a permanent paid holiday. Despite the University’s land acknowledgment that claims “words are not enough,” the administration refuses to grant time off for workers to participate in tribal elections. The University’s negotiator told AFSCME they would only agree to this proposal if the Board of Regents required it—the same Board whose vice chair, Steve Sviggum, recently questioned whether the Morris campus, the site of a former Indian boarding school that forcibly assimilated Indigenous children, was “becoming too diverse.”

Recent communications from the administration to the University community have only made a bad situation worse. As an educational institution, the University has a responsibility to foster informed discussions. This is especially so for conflicts within our own institution. 

Vice President for Human Resources Ken Horstman’s Oct. 7 email about the status of bargaining with Local 320, which he framed as an objective update, abdicated this responsibility and abused the University’s access to our inboxes to communicate a one-sided position on the status of negotiations. A subsequent email from Mani Vang, senior director of labor relations, on Oct. 14 was laced with veiled threats to non-striking employees, warning them that non-striking workers must cross picket lines to report for work. These deceptive and threatening messages not only violate the University’s professed values, they also create a toxic work environment.

Although President Joan Gabel stated this week that the administration is “fully committed to continuing to find common ground with our valued employees and leadership,” their bargaining stance and email communications with us reflect otherwise. Since 2020, all employees at the University have made heroic efforts, in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic, to maintain the University’s academic and educational excellence. 

While the administration often pays lip service to these efforts, it has not put its money where its mouth is. Teamster Local 320 and AFSCME members represent a significantly higher proportion of Black, Indigenous and other People of Color than other University employee groups, yet despite the administration proclaiming its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, it continues to pay them poverty wages. Local 320 and AFSCME workers will only sink further into poverty since the proposed raises on the table amount to a cut in pay, given the current rate of inflation (about 8.2%). If the administration truly values these employees, then it needs to follow words with actions. 

Students: Our educational experience at the University relies on the countless efforts of all these workers. We pay thousands of dollars in tuition, fees and other costs to attend the University. The administration is far from cash-strapped and can afford to provide the living wages and benefits frontline workers deserve and can do so without hiking student tuition or fees.  

According to the University’s audited financial statements for FY 2021, the University saw a surplus of $843.6 million. University payroll data for PP21 of FY 2022 lists more than 225 administrators at the University whose salary is greater than Minnesota’s governor. The Board of Regents rewarded Gabel with a compensation package last year that makes her the first University president to receive over $1 million a year in total compensation. The University isn’t facing a budget crisis but a distribution crisis. 

What can students do to support unionized employees and push back against the administration? Contact President Gabel, tell her to commit to living wages for frontline workers. Attend union rallies to show support. Ask frontline staff about their working conditions: do they think they’re being compensated adequately for their contributions to the University and to your education? Ask your instructors if they would support a strike. And if a strike comes to pass, show your solidarity by showing up on the picket lines. 

 

Students, Staff, and Faculty United is a coalition of numerous organizations at the University advocating for equity and labor justice on campus.

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  • Drake Thomas Myers
    Oct 21, 2022 at 3:53 pm

    I hope the workers spit in their coffees, I hope they have to clean their own offices, I hope they have to take out their own overflowing trash. I’ll be there at the picket because these big Whig people who look down on everyone else, these Scrooges with lanyards and Google calendars, they make me sick.

  • Russo
    Oct 21, 2022 at 4:10 pm

    The lies and racism from the administration are much more than shameful. Raises and respect to the Teamsters and AFSCME now!

  • Isabella Harbison
    Oct 21, 2022 at 3:44 pm

    as a student, i know i have more in common with the workers than i will ever have in my lifetime with people like Joan Gabel. university workers deserve fair wages and then some!

  • goodopinionhaver
    Oct 21, 2022 at 3:41 pm

    Teamsters will begin strikes Wednesday October 26th and return to work that Sunday. Show up on the picket line and show your support for the people who keep this University running!

  • goodopinionhaver
    Oct 21, 2022 at 3:38 pm

    Hey regents! Stop paying U of M workers poverty wages!! We stand with workers, not the hypocritical administration!