Clerical Workers, U. of Minnesota Reach Agreement


[For the information of our readers, we are posting the following article from the November 5 issue of the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Mary Jane Smetanka (with some subheads changed).

[In the near future we hope to post an assessment by our correspondents in the Twin Cities on the gains this strike brought for workers at the University of Minnesota. The quotations from Phyllis Walker and Gladys McKenzie in the article below give a preliminary idea of some of the significant achievements made by AFSCME Locals 3800 and 3801 in this strike.

[Note especially this statement: We have won concrete gains for our workers and we have won respect from everyone on campus,” said a buoyant Phyllis Walker, president of Local 3800. “Clerical workers were the ones who were willing to stand up and fight.”

[The union’s chief negotiator, Gladys McKenzie, is quoted as follows:We knew from the beginning of the strike that, because of economic conditions, some people would be coming to work,” she said. “This is an institution that has undermined the economic well-being of staff, and from day one that [consideration] was built into our strike. It was an act of courage for people to walk out in the hundreds in spite of that.”]

The University of Minnesota’s first strike in almost 60 years ended Tuesday when unionized clerical workers reached tentative agreement on a contract after a two-week walkout.

The deal was reached after almost 30 hours of through-the-night negotiations on both Sunday and Monday that ended at about 7 a.m. Tuesday. Tired but elated union officials claimed victory, but declined to release details of the settlement before the 1,900 workers represented by Locals 3800 and 3801 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) could see specifics themselves.

“We have won concrete gains for our workers and we have won respect from everyone on campus,” said a buoyant Phyllis Walker, president of Local 3800. “Clerical workers were the ones who were willing to stand up and fight.”

University officials said they were delighted the strike was over and said that in general, the agreement mirrors that offered to other employees.

Other union contracts at the school include a one-year wage freeze, a pay increase of 2.5 percent in the second year and bigger employee contributions toward health care costs [though not as big as the university administration had originally demanded].

University President Robert Bruininks called the strike “a very difficult event” in the school’s history and said he was glad it was over.

“I believe this is a great result for the University of Minnesota,” he said. “It’s great to have our valued employees back at work. We need them.”

He said the university “did not put any substantial new money on the table to get this agreement. The agreement was achieved by both parties working creatively within existing guidelines and the existing resources we have available to us.”

Clerical workers, whose duties include accounting, web page design, managing research grants, answering phones, and many other jobs, will be back at work today. They are expected to vote on the 2003-05 contract in the next two to three weeks.

Strike Lasted 15 Days

After taking a $185 million cut in 2004-05 funding at this year’s Legislature, the university had asked all employees to pay more for health care and to take a wage freeze for a year. While those issues were central to the dispute, the union also objected to language in the proposed contract that affected recall of laid-off employees, changes to vacations, and other employment conditions.

Bruininks indicated that the university had compromised on some of that language and that pay ranges in certain jobs were adjusted. But he added that the settlement “was within the financial guidelines we had set for all employee groups.”

Getting Back to Work

Relief at the settlement was evident on both sides. At strike headquarters, Walker’s eyes filled with tears as dozens of union members packed a room, spilled out into the hallway and down the stairs and chanted, “Union, union.”

“You know I never cry,” she said as union members cheered.

Though many workers represented by the union had crossed picket lines—an estimated 65 percent were coming to work as of late last week—Bruininks admitted the strike stressed the university. While the school hasn’t calculated the strike’s cost, he said, “It certainly cost me a little sleep, and it certainly cost a whole lot of people more than sleep. You’re spending enormous amounts of energy keeping things going and to keep the quality of service as high as you possibly can, [but] you’re not working on other initiatives.”

More than 100 faculty members had moved some of their classes off campus at least temporarily, using bookstores, movie theaters, [union halls,] and churches as impromptu classrooms. Last week, a small but determined group of students staged a sit-in at Morrill Hall [at the main campus in Minneapolis] to demand that the administration meet the union’s demands. [On Monday, November 4, students were sitting in at the St. Paul and Duluth campuses as well.]

Walker and other union officials said they thought student pressure helped bring the university back to the table, but Bruininks said the two sides were already in contact through state mediators last week.

Union Knew Some Members Could Not Join the Strike

Union chief negotiator Gladys McKenzie indicated that there wouldn’t be lingering resentment between strikers and those who crossed the picket line.

“We knew from the beginning of the strike that because of economic conditions, some people would be coming to work,” she said. “This is an institution that has undermined the economic well-being of staff, and from day one that [consideration] was built into our strike. It was an act of courage for people to walk out in the hundreds in spite of that.”

Bruininks said he believes any wounds will heal.

“The university has deep respect for the members of this union and the work they do,” he said. “I have every confidence that we’ll come back together as an academic community.”

Union member Janet Campbell, who works mainly in accounting at the school’s Cancer Center, said she felt empowered by the strike.

“I feel good; I feel strong,” she said. “It was tough yesterday on the picket line; we were tired and cold. But I was there every day and it felt good to do it.”

She said she went on strike not only for herself but for the future well-being of her family. “It wasn’t whether you could afford to go out; it was whether you could afford not to,” Campbell said. “We got a decent victory.”

Nancy Wiswell has worked at the university for 34 years. Now a principal secretary in the School of Music, she said the strike was “a respect issue.” She said she was boosted by the support the students she works with gave her on the picket line, when many stopped to give her a hug.

“We were wet and cold, but the support has been great,” Wiswell said. “I got to know so many people outside of my department. It will never be the same.”

Early Tuesday, the university also reached tentative settlement with an AFSCME unit that represents about 170 health care workers. That means that all organized workers at the university have reached at least tentative contract settlements.