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University of Minnesota on strike
University of Minnesota on strike
DocumentUniversity clerical workers go on strike
DocumentPickets up at U campuses around the state
Tom Juravich, University of Massachusetts Labor Center, on the strategy of a strike
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Strike took U officials by surprise
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U of M Vice President Carol Carrier and President Robert Bruininks are trying to keep operations at the U's campuses on track, despite the strike by unionized clerical workers. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
University of Minnesota officials say they're surprised the U's largest union has gone on strike. Clerical workers represented by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 3800 began a second day of picketing Wednesday. Labor relations experts say the strike reflects the financial squeeze that a tough economy and rising health costs are putting on workers and employers alike.

Minneapolis, Minn. — University of Minnesota Vice President of Human Resources Carol Carrier says the walkout was unexpected.

"Frankly, we were surprised. We were surprised for a couple of reasons," Carrier says, because two other unions have recently settled contracts.

Carrier also points to the university's tough budget situation -- a 15 percent cut in state funding, rising health care costs and a commitment to no further layoffs.

"We thought that all of those reasons have helped other employees make the decision to accept the university's package, knowing that we put out there kind of the best that we can do," says Carrier.

I don't think you can starve 'em out. I think public pressure would turn against that sort of a tactic.
- Wayne Simoneau, former head of Employee Relations Department

AFSCME Local 3800 will not issue strike pay to its 1,900 members, though it does have a hardship fund. Minnesota's unemployment rate is as high as it's been since 1994, raising little hope it will be easy for striking workers to find a supplemental paycheck.

But union negotiating committee member Brad Sigal says the membership is willing to make a sacrifice in the short term to avoid hurting their ability to pay the bills in the long term.

"It's precisely when the economic climate is bad that workers are put in a position where we have to fight back, because that's when we're squeezed," says Sigal.

The university's offer would freeze pay in the first year, followed by a 2.5 percent increase in the second year. But Sigal says union members were particularly upset about higher health care costs in the U's proposal.

"That's where people are taking the biggest hit financially. People are going to be paying double or triple what they currently pay for health care under what the U has proposed," says Sigal.

University officials say the health plan offer is still more generous than the national average. Sigal says rank and file union members viewed the first-year pay freeze as an attack on the union itself. That proposal would eliminate automatic wage increases for seniority, an issue central to the union's initial formation.

Julien Carter, former commissioner of Employee Relations under Gov. Jesse Ventura, says some smaller strikes in Minnesota have appeared to pay off for workers in recent years. A high profile strike at Yale University led to significant pension gains last month. On the other hand, Carter says many employers are strapped.

"When you look at probably what's happened with the University of Minnesota as far as its funding, it's probably a pretty accurate assessment that there just is not a lot of extra resources to put towards wages and benefits -- at least if they're like any other publicly funded institution," says Carter.

Wayne Simoneau, a one time Teamsters negotiator and also a former commissioner of Employee Relations, says the strike appears to be a case of employee concerns about rising health care costs boiling over. He points to the higher employee health costs AFSCME negotiators accepted in a tentative contract agreement covering state workers.

"Looks like the people over at the university, who are also AFSCME, said, 'You know, maybe we'd better dig our heels in, and put the brakes on the concept that we have to take the hits on health care, particularly health care,'" says Simoneau.

Simoneau predicts the strike will last at least a couple of weeks, but he says the university would lose public support in a long walkout.

"I don't think you can starve 'em out. I think public pressure would turn against that sort of a tactic, saying, 'We'll run the U without these 1,800 people indefinitely. I just don't think that would work," he says.

Simoneau says if he were mediator, he'd call the parties together after the workers get their next paycheck.

"I would really ... try to find a way to get that resolved right after that," says Simoneau, saying that next paycheck can be a catalyst for restarting contract talks.

"(It's) just the psychological timing, that there won't be another one coming, unless I go back to work," he says.

The university's next payday is Oct. 29.

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