Students and teachers back university strike

MINNEAPOLIS — Members of four locals of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) representing 3,500 clerical, technical and health care workers at the University of Minnesota walked out Sept. 5 over pay issues. The university has offered wage increases of 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent, which the union points out do not keep up with projected inflation rates of 3.5 percent. Strikers are encouraged by the stronger support the strike is getting compared to a similar one in 2003.

Amid cheering workers, students and faculty at a strike rally on Sept. 6, Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, spoke in support of U of M strikers. She said she and her husband support unions across the country including the workers here.

In order not to cross picket lines, Sen. Barack Obama, also a presidential candidate, cancelled his scheduled campus appearance on Sept. 15.

Eliot Seide, director of AFSCME Council 5, pledged the support of tens of thousands of AFSCME members in Minnesota. Additional messages of solidarity were received from other unions.

U of M Regent Steven Hunter urged the university to negotiate. After protesters shut down a Board of Regents meeting Sept. 6, demanding that the regents end the strike by offering AFSCME workers a just wage increase, Hunter, who is also secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, said the university should get back to the bargaining table. No talks had taken place since the previous week.

The regents were forced to adjourn their meeting. Five protesters were arrested for blocking the door.

The administration claims that two-thirds of the workers have remained on the job. However, many university operations are shut down despite the university’s effort to shift the work to nonstriking employees. The facilities management emergency center is cleared of employees. Library operations are impeded by lack of clerical and technical workers. The bursar’s offices on two of the three Twin Cities campuses are closed. The student health service and the veterinary clinics are accepting only emergency patients. The multi-story School of Dentistry clinics are reduced to one floor of clinics. With police dispatchers on strike, it took 90 minutes for the university police to respond to a fender-bender accident. UPS delivery service drivers are refusing to cross the picket lines, forcing supervisors to make the deliveries.

Striking workers are getting support from many faculty and students who are also honoring the picket lines. Professor Paula Rabinowitz met 200 students in her English class in a church off campus. AFSCME reports helping find off-campus space for over 120 class sections, involving some 4,000 students. Other instructors have moved their classes to places like coffee shops on their own. Professor Lisa Norling gave her history class a choice, and the majority voted to relocate for at least one class session. These moves challenge university administration edicts to instructors to keep classes on campus or face disciplinary action.

Two theater arts instructors, Ananya Chatterjea and Cindy Garcia, joined forces with students to give a performance piece for striking workers. Chatterjea e-mailed other faculty urging: “Those of us working with our bodies have great power in publicizing the inequities and making public our non-alignment with the administration.”

Students at the university’s Humphrey Institute held an impromptu ice cream social for striking workers with four gallons of ice cream and toppings. A coffee cart is also being supplied to strikers in front of Humphrey.

Teach-ins are planned. Graduate students have organized a “people’s conference on rethinking the U of M within the moment of crisis,” in support of striking AFSCME workers and “all those struggling for a more democratic university.” Student and faculty support groups have formed. Graduate students from communications have set up a web page for instructors to upload assignments related to the strike.

For strike updates, see .