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Minnesota: AFSCME workers pack regents meeting, rally for living wage

By Andy Carhart

Minneapolis, MN – About 50 University of Minnesota AFSCME clerical, technical and health care workers packed the Nov. 9 Board of Regents meeting here, as the workers’ contract was ratified. The significant workers’ presence at the meeting, despite the fact that it was during the workday, showed the administration that union members at the University of Minnesota are determined to continue the fight for economic justice.

Over 1200 University of Minnesota AFSCME workers were on strike for 18 days in September, mainly over wages. The university administration refused to give clerical, technical and health care workers the full raise that the state legislature had allotted for them and that other state workers had received. Instead the administration shortchanged the workers and dug in it its heels. In spite of the strike, broad student, community and labor support, and significant legislative pressure in support of the workers, the administration remained intransigent on the workers’ main wage demand.

Union members wanted to send a message to the Regents that even though members voted to end the strike out of financial necessity, that doesn’t mean the workers are satisfied with the settlement. A statement issued by the union and distributed to those in attendance at the Regents meeting said, “This settlement is inadequate. It does not account for the ever rising cost of food, gas and housing.” Workers are back at work, but are continuing the fight for a living wage that keeps pace with inflation.

The University, fearing a disruption of the meeting, responded to the AFSCME workers’ attendance at the regents meeting with a large police presence in the meeting room and throughout the McNamara building. However, there was no disruption, just a visible presence of union members wearing union t-shirts and buttons. About half the meeting room was filled with union members who all stood up silently together when their contract was brought up for discussion. As the regents voted to ratify the contract, many union members turned their backs on the board in a show of disgust.

After the regents meeting the AFSCME workers held a rally outside the building to inspire their co-workers to action for the continuing struggle for a living wage for clerical, technical and health care workers at the U. Speakers at the rally included Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME Local 3800, Barb Bezat, president of AFSCME Local 3937, Gil Huie of Local 3937, and Jess Crary of the Living Wage Avengers.

Living Wage Avengers is a rank-and-file group of workers and students that emerged after the strike to organize in creative ways to continue the fight for a living wage. At the rally, Crary said, “We are the Living Wage Avengers, colleagues who met on the picket lines, a group committed to taking direct action for the sake of economic justice, a group that exists because of the strike. Our union leaders and active union members continue to fight, and so must we all continue to fight. Our chance to affect change has been sitting here in front of us, just waiting for us to grab it. The strike is our catalyst for action. Our time is right here, our time is right now.” Crary added, “and our power only grows from this moment.”

In an interview in the Minnesota Daily newspaper in October, University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks stated that he thinks that, “no one, absolutely no one, wins when you have a strike. Everyone loses. And I think that was the case here at the University of Minnesota.”

Speaking at the rally, AFSCME 3800 president Phyllis Walker disagreed. She said, “In a strike it is easy to quantify the losses – all you have to do is add up the salary you lost. But the wins are there, and they definitely outweigh the losses. We were strong, we were united and that solidarity will carry us forward and keep us strong for future battles – and there will be many future battles. Our strike has put the university on notice that we are willing and able to stand and fight this union busting, anti-worker employer together and that will act as a springboard for the campaigns that lay ahead.”

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