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U of M clerical union considers contract offer
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Hundreds of students, workers, and members of other unions attended a pre-vote rally outside Coffman Union on the university's Minneapolis campus. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
The University of Minnesota's clerical union could be headed for a strike. Negotiations between the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Local 3800, and university officials broke down in early September. Union members vote Wednesday and Thursday on whether to take the advice of union leadership and reject the university's offer and authorize a strike.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Hundreds of students, workers, and members of other unions attended a pre-vote rally outside Coffman Union on the university's Minneapolis campus on Tuesday. Picket signs read Lowest Paid, Hardest Hit and The U works because we do.

There are about 1,800 AFSCME workers employed at three U of M campuses, including the Twin Cities, and another 200 members on the Duluth campus. Since the university budget cuts, 70 AFSCME workers have been laid off.

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Image Supporting the workers

University clerical worker tasks include everything from processing football game tickets, to typing up instructors' handouts for classes to processing paychecks.

AFSCME local president Phyllis Walker says she expects union members to reject the contract offer and authorize a strike.

She calls the university's two-year contract offer an attempt to balance university budget "on the backs of its lowest-paid workers."

"There is no budget crisis at the University of Minnesota. There is a distribution crisis. The university has the money for things it thinks is important, including paying 60 administrators at this institution more than the governor is paid," she said.

Walker says the average AFSCME worker makes $14.20 an hour.

Union negotiators walked away from the university's most recent offer, which includes a wage freeze for the first year, and a 2.5-percent wage increase the second year. The offer also calls for workers to pay increased health insurance premiums and higher copays.

Walker says higher health care costs combined with the salary freeze, add up to a four to 10 percent decrease in union member salaries over the next two years. She says under the university's offer, some workers would have to give up their health care benefits.

"Some of the lowest-paid workers who make $12.36 an hour are simply not going to be able to afford it. Whereas the administrators who make $200,000, $300,000 a year, health insurance ends up being a very small percentage of their salary, less than one percent, so they have no problems," she said.

"None of us looks forward to having to pay more for our health care regardless of what salary you're at," countered Carol Carrier, the university's vice president of human resources.

She says the health care increases will amount to an extra $380 a year for a single worker, and $420 more per year for a family.

"We think that we have done our best to try to do some things to accommodate a health plan that is still affordable. Even our low cost plan is a very strong plan with a lot of access and really good care," she said.

Carrier says the university's offer represents hard choices brought on by a $185 million cut to the university's 2004-2005 state budget appropriation.

"Clearly this is an historic budget cut for us. It has meant to us that we have got to look in kind of a lot of directions to solve the problem. Students are paying higher tuition, we've laid off more than 500 capable employees, there will be continued examination of program cuts and so on," Carrier said.

Observers say the recent strike vote by state workers will probably encourage university union workers to turn out for the vote in large numbers.

AFSCME's Walker says if members authorize a strike that will start a ten day clock, after which the union would have 20 days to call a strike.

University and union officials say they hope it won't come to that. They both say they're willing to keep talking, though neither side has offered to do so.

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