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University of Minnesota on strike
University of Minnesota on strike
DocumentUniversity clerical workers go on strike
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Tom Juravich, University of Massachusetts Labor Center, on the strategy of a strike
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Bruininks says U is doing its best to resolve strike
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U of M President Robert Bruininks met Thursday with a group of students who've staged a sit-in outside his office building. He says the U is doing its best to try to resolve a contract dispute with striking clerical workers. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks told reporters Thursday the university is "working on coming up with" an agreement to get striking workers back on the job. He did not say when the university would head back to the negotiating table.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Bruininks made his comments after meeting with a group of students who have staged sit-ins for the past three days outside the president's office.

Thursday is the 10th day of a strike by about 700 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 3800.

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Image Staging a sit-in

Without giving specifics, Bruininks says he's encouraging the mediator to bring both sides back to the table.

"No one takes any pleasure in this strike. A strike is one of the worst things that can happen to a community like the University of Minnesota," says Bruininks. "So we're anxious to get this behind us, we're deeply disapppointed that we're spending our time and energy this way. And we're going to try to do everything we can, and we have been doing our level best to resolve this issue."

Campus police have locked down Morrill Hall. Sixteen students still inside the building say they won't leave until the university negotiates a settlement with striking clerical workers.

The university continues to maintain it can't budge from its offer of a one-year pay freeze for clerical workers, followed by a 2.5 percent raise in the second year of the contract. Nor is it willing to back off on passing more health care costs on to the workers. But Patti Dion, the U's director of employee relations and compensation, says her side wouldn't rule out talking about other issues.

"Proposals they have related to layoff, probationary period, seniority," says Dion. Although she says the university is not willing to move on those issues, "those are areas where we're willing to talk."

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Image Striking workers

Told of Dion's comments, AFSCME union president Phyllis Walker reacted every bit as cautiously as Dion.

"We would go back to the table, but it would be better if we didn't negotiate this in the press," says Walker.

The hint of movement came on the day the university issued final full paychecks for the striking clerical workers. In about two weeks, their health benefits will run out.

But many workers on the picket lines, like Peter Chiarelli, say they are undeterred.

"I'll be out here indefinitely. I'll go as long as I possibly can until I need to find another job, or if we find a settlement," says Chiarelli.

For our members now to be asked to go for two years without those increases is seen as just huge backwards movement. It's like being asked by the employer to go back 20 years in time.
- Gladys McKenzie, union negotiator, on step pay increases

This is Local 3800's first strike in its 12-year history. There is no pay for those on the picket lines, but there is a hardship fund workers can tap. Union officials say it amounts to tens of thousands of dollars. They say amounts given to workers will be determined on a case by case basis. So far, there have been some inquiries, but no hardship money has been dispersed.

AFSCME members also have access to a small food shelf run by the AFL-CIO community services program, that also hasn't been tapped so far.

University officials continue to say it's business as usual on campus. Student workers and other staff members are picking up the slack of the some 700 or so workers on the picket lines. The U says 64 percent of about 1,900 clerical workers are on the job, up from 55 percent on day one.

The U's Patti Dion says so far there are no major problems redistributing the workload.

"However, these employees are important to us, and we as a university certainly would like to see an end to this strike action as well," says Dion. "(We) are hopeful that the parties will find a way to get together soon, to see if there's a way to resolve our differences."

Between 30 and 40 percent of Local 3800 members are "fair share" members. They pay 85 percent of the dues, and do not vote. Though neither the union nor the university can provide numbers, it's estimated many of those still on the job are fair share members.

It's unclear how much work it will take for the two sides to reach agreement. Union leaders say it's not just about the money, but also about how it's distributed. In its last proposal, the university didn't include any money for "step" increases that workers automatically receive, based on their years of service.

Union negotiator Gladys McKenzie says step increases are the main reason clerical workers wanted to form a union back in 1991.

"This was a huge issue, a huge victory for people in our first contract," says McKenzie. "So for our members now to be asked to go for two years without those increases is seen as just huge backwards movement. It's like being asked by the employer to go back 20 years in time."

McKenzie says most of the 1,900 clerical workers would be eligible for step increases. University officials say they've calculated about half would be eligible. Patti Dion says either way, the U can't afford it.

Dion says even though the university is saving money now by not paying the salaries of several hundred striking the savings would not be enough to fund step increases.

"The university has several costs related to managing during this strike. We have security costs, we have costs for overtime for other employees, we have costs related to replacement workers, things like that," says Dion.

University officials say if the union is serious about step increases, it could use some of 2.5 percent second-year increase to restore them. But under that scenario, less money would be available for across-the-board cost-of-living raises, and union leaders say they won't make that trade-off.

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