“There’s a Distribution Crisis, Not a Budget Crisis”

Strong Support for Clerical Workers on Strike at U of Minnesota

by David Jones

In its first two days, October 22 and 23, the strike has been highly visible, with lots of public support.

More than a thousand workers and sympathizers are on the picket lines, at more than thirty locations around the extensive grounds and facilities of the University of Minnesota (U of M), mainly in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but also as far afield as Duluth and Austin, Minnesota. The strikers are members of Local 3800 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Lots of expressions of support come from students and faculty, and from passing motorists and truck drivers. The air is filled with the sounds of picketers chanting, passersby shouting approval, and horns honking, especially where major streets run by the campus.

A couple of construction sites at the university have shut down, at least temporarily, as building trades workers refused to cross the picket lines.

UPS drivers, of the Teamsters union, have turned away, honoring the picket lines and refusing to make deliveries to such locations as the university’s central mail depot and “health center.” Besides the UPS drivers, beverage truck drivers and other unionized drivers are honoring the picket lines.

A local railroad workers union sent a “Solidarity Wagon”—a van with signs on its sides like “We Support U of M Workers”/“We Support Local 3800.” It drove around to the thirty-some picketing sites, bringing coffee and donuts, bagels, fruit, etc., giving a boost to the picketers’ morale.

Most of the clerical workers have never been on strike before. In fact, this is the first major strike by university employees in the history of the U of M. (The only known precedent is a brief strike that occurred in the 1940s.)

A support rally scheduled for Friday, October 24, features the head of the clerical workers union at Yale University, which recently won a big strike battle against the administration at Yale. They fought and won on many of the same issues that Minnesota clerical workers are fighting for.

Student-Faculty Support

About 160 classes have moved off campus in solidarity with Local 3800. New locations for these classes have been found at union halls, churches, coops, and elsewhere. Some students, while expressing “200 percent” support for the strike, have preferred to keep their classes on campus. Some say they need to get the education they’re paying for. Discussion has arisen over the possibility of “opening up” the university as a protest center, rather than “shutting it down.”

An estimated 4–5,000 students are involved in the classes that have moved off campus, and thousands of others express their sympathy with the strikers.

Many businesses near the university have signs in their windows such as “We Support the U of M Workers,” and many are sending drinks and food to the picketers. Student volunteers are coming to the strike headquarters, located in a Baptist church across the street from the main campus in Minneapolis. They help make sandwiches and deliver them to the picketers. A large photo in the strike headquarters shows the soup kitchen that helped keep spirits up during the 1934 Teamsters strikes, which first made Minneapolis a union town.

In Austin, Minnesota, scene of the hard-fought Hormel workers strike of the 1980s, a small research branch of the University of Minnesota exists, ironically named the Hormel Institute. Clerical workers there are represented by Local 3800. The United Support Group, created during the P-9 strike, has endured and given its support to the workers at the Institute.

Front-Page News

The strike is daily front-page headline news in the St. Paul and Minneapolis newspapers and the university’s student-run Minneaot Daily, supplemented by nightly coverage on local television. This immense institution is highly visible and centrally located within the Twin Cities, where most of its nearly 50,000 undergraduate students and 18,000 employees are found.

The corporate-controlled media is of course attacking the strike and trying to discourage the striking workers.

A big play is given to the university administration’s unverifiable assertion that at least half the clerical workers are not taking part in the strike. Under state labor law the university cannot be a “closed shop.” About 35 percent of clerical workers are so-called “fair-share” members, not belonging to the union and not paying full union dues, but getting the same benefits as those who are union members.

The union has explained that the real impact of the strike can only be measured by the impact on university operations created by the absence of the striking workers, not by a speculative daily scorecard. It was known in advance, union leaders say, that many of these economically vulnerable workers would feel compelled to report to work during the strike, but that pulling out even 50 percent of the clerical workforce would plunge the university into a deep organizational and administrative crisis.

Informants among administration and non-striking employee groups have told strikers not to believe the administration. The university, they say, is in a state of chaos.

To answer the media lies, Local 3800 is putting out the “U Strike Bulletin” (viewable in PDF format on the union’s web site, www.afscme3800.org).

One line of media attack is that the strike is weak. The other main line of attack is that other public employee unions have recently accepted onerous cuts in their health care benefits. Therefore, the argument goes, the workers of Local 3800 should do the same. The statewide public employees union, which represents 20,000 workers, recently accepted additional health insurance costs. But the university is technically autonomous, and the public employees there deal separately with the university administration, not the state government.

The university administration’s plan to shift the additional burden of health care costs onto the employees amounts to a wage cut of 10-14 percent. For the striking members of Local 3800 that is unacceptable—that the university administration wants them to pay hundreds of dollars more per month out of their paychecks to maintain their health care benefits.

The truth is that two other unions at the university, building services and maintenance and food service workers, had very close votes on this question. They decided by narrow margins not to strike over the issue. But their leaderships did not campaign for a strike vote. They sat back passively, telling their members in effect, “It’s up to you.” The Local 3800 leadership actively campaigned among its members against accepting the outrageous cutbacks the administration is demanding. Local 3800 should be the example for other public employees, not vice versa.

Most of the clerical workers who make up Local 3800 are women (93 percent), and many are the sole support of their families. They exist near the bottom rung of the ladder of subsistence. The university administration wants to kick them off that rung.

Local 3800 is fighting to change a particularly odious rule. If a university worker changes jobs, regardless of her years of service she must go through a six-month probation period. During this “probation” time an employee can be dismissed without cause. The university administration has used this rule to terminate workers who have served loyally up to 20–30 years in some cases. It also uses the rule against union activists.

Local 3800 is also demanding the retention of “step increases,” regular pay raises based on time in service, an important gain for the union when it negotiated its first contract in the early 1990s. There were no such mandated regular raises before that, and 95 percent of the clerical workers were at the bottom of the possible range of pay for the jobs they performed.

In reply to the university administration’s claim that “there is no money,” Local 3800 points to the $1.6 billion fund drive the university just completed. University President Bruininks said several weeks ago that the money is not meant for “humdrum clerks.” He wants to use it for a new football stadium and other new construction. And no one who has wealth to distribute forgets about himself. Sixty administrators at the University of Minnesota make more than the governor of the state! President Bruininks rakes in $350,000 a year. And the vice president of the health care wing of the university makes $395,000. That part of the university is heavily endowed by corporations and engages in research to benefit precisely those corporations.

Corporatization of the University

Local 3800 is also raising the issue of corporatization. The University of Minnesota, a land-grant university like most state universities, is supposed to be broadly accessible to all the people of the state. Yet with constant tuition hikes—to pay for swollen administrative salaries, along with football stadiums and pro-corporate research—students from working class families find it harder and harder to afford an education at what is supposed to be their state’s public university.

The union’s struggle against the imposition of even greater health care costs clearly is resonating deeply with all segments of the university community and beyond. To repeat, the striking workers’ picket lines are visible to tens of thousands who pass daily through the university or report there for work or study. The scene is a cacophony of supportive honking horns from passing cars, buses, and trucks, with shouts, chants, whistles, and other loud and enthusiastic expressions of support and approval.

The essence of the issues that the union has been forced to fight over, and its expert formulation of its public opposition to the concept that the crisis is an inevitable result of declining resources available to government, have been captured most effectively in its slogan, “There is a distribution crisis, not a budget crisis.” This slogan has been taken up and echoed by supporters across a broad political and social spectrum here. It’s also pungently expressed in a widely worn union T-shirt. The front of the shirt says, “Time to share the pain?” and on the back it proclaims, “All right—it’s your turn. Tax the Rich!”