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University of Minnesota on strike
University of Minnesota on strike
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University of Minnesota workers go on strike
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These employees hit the picket lines early Tuesday morning on the U of M's West Bank campus. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
Nearly 2,000 University of Minnesota clerical workers are walking the picket lines. Negotiations between the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800 and university officials broke down on Monday. No new talks are planned. Picketing is scheduled for university buildings on the Twin Cities campuses and on U of M campuses in Duluth, Morris, and Crookston.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Clerical workers and university management failed to reach agreement despite nearly two days of ongoing talks with state mediators. The two sides had been ready to talk right up to the midnight strike deadline. But at an 8:30 p.m. news conference, union president Phyllis Walker announced the union's decision to reject the university's contract and walk off the job.

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Image Picket practice

"Clerical workers have said loudly, again and again, that they cannot accept the university's wage package and health care cuts, and our lack of job security in our contract. And they are willing and ready to go on strike. Our goal was to achieve a settlement, but they're ready. They know that they have to stand up and work together to change this," she said. As she spoke, Walker was surrounded by dozens of union members holding picket signs.

She says union negotiators thought they would see some concessions from the university. But she says the university did not come up with a better offer.

"The same thing our members voted to strike over on October 1 and 2, that's the same thing that was on the table, there was no movement at all."

The university's offer includes a wage freeze for the first year of the contract, with a 2.5 percent wage increase the second year. The proposal also would've required workers to bear some increases in health care costs. Single coverage would cost about $15 more per paycheck, although that would've been offset by a one-time $200 payment from the U.

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Image U of M President Robert Bruininks

President Robert Bruininks said the university has its best offer on the table. He says the university cannot absorb the 15 percent cut made to the university's budget by lawmakers last session without the wage freeze and passing on the health costs to employees. He says increasing salaries or benefits for the clerical workers union would result in more layoffs.

Union workers heckled Bruininks through open windows during his news conference.

"So, each low income employee, and that's defined as $65,000 or less, will receive $200 to help cushion these health care cost increases. So we think we've made a very fair offer, we placed a very fair offer on the table," Bruininks said.

Workers represented by the striking union include receptionists, Web page designers, secretaries, data-entry specialists and people who work in financial aid, payroll and research labs. Their median annual salary is $29,952.

AFSCME Local 3800 represents more than 1,700 employees on the university's Twin Cities, Morris and Crookston campuses. Local 3801 represents about 200 employees on the Duluth campus. Both unions are negotiating together.

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Image Union president Phyllis Walker

University Vice President of Human Resources Carol Carrier says the university is prepared to conduct its business without the clerical workers.

"We'll have a variety of strategies. In some cases, our current workers will take on a bit more, we all expect to do that. We have a large number of student employees," she said.

The university will also hire temporary workers.

Judy Mclean Parks, a professor of organizational development at Washington University in St. Louis, says the outcome of the AFSCME negotiations is not surprising, given the current economic climate across the country. She says both sides are coming to the bargaining table with what she calls a "loss frame" of mind.

"The union's saying, 'We're losing benefits, and we've had our wages frozen.' And the university's saying, 'Our budget's frozen by the state, we've got these increasing costs, and so they're even reducing our budget even more.' And so you've got both parties in a loss frame, and that's going to make them much tougher bargainers. They're going to be much more competitive and contentious in their bargaining style," she predicted.

The clerical union strike will be the first at the university in 50 years.

More than 4,000 students at the Twin Cities campus planned to hold classes at alternative sites to show solidarity with the union. More than 160 classes were scheduled to meet in churches, bookstores, theaters and other sites.

Bruininks says he sent a letter to all faculty members advising them not to do that. He did not say whether there would be any repercussions if classes are held off campus.

Another university employee union, AFSCME Local 3260, voted Wednesday to reject the university's contract offer and approve a strike. The union represents 174 clinical workers. It has not filed an intent to strike with the state's Bureau of Mediation Services.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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