Fighting for Affordable Higher Ed

AFSCME Council 5 members stood with fellow union members, faculty and students at the University of Minnesota last week to push for affordable education.
 
They spoke in support of lowering the price of college for students and staff, easing student debt and providing fair pay. They were part of a national one day #CampusResistance movement. Students, staff and faculty at more than 80 colleges across the U.S. held protests, teach-ins and other events in support of higher education.
 
“In this age of alternative facts, we really need people who are well-educated, but we need to be able to get ourselves into these classes to gain this knowledge,” says Wendy Weimerskirch Plager, an executive office and administrative specialist at the U of M, and Local 3800 organizing committee member.
 
The University used to offer free tuition to workers, but cut that benefit back. Now workers must pay 25 percent of their tuition for graduate work. Unlike many colleges, the U doesn’t offer free or discounted tuition to workers’ children and spouses. Even with her discount, Weimerskirch Plager’s master’s degree cost her more than $10,000, and her husband’s studies will cost $145,000.
 
“It is so strange to me that while I work at a place that supposedly encourages lifelong learning, classes are prohibitively expensive for staff,” Weimerskirch Plager says. “I would love to take more classes to help me continue to improve at my job, but even with the 75 percent discount, one class would cost me $1,000, which is out of my reach.” 
 
AFSCME, SEIU, Teamsters and students called on the university to restore free tuition for workers and to extend a break to immediate family, too. They also criticized the U of M for continuing to be so top heavy, following years cutting front-line staff instead of highly paid managers.
 
 Cherrene Horazuk, Local 3800 president, says restoring free tuition is essential to AFSCME members, along with decent wages. She told Rep. Deb Hilstrom and Sen. Scott Dibble that the U claims it’s cutting administrative costs, but what it’s really doing is keeping its high-paid, high-titled workers and cutting direct support staff.
 
“It ends up with faculty doing their own copying jobs and printing. Rather than focusing on teaching and research, they’re doing office tasks,” Horazuk says. “The university is spending all this money up there, and then they try to pit us against each other: They say we don’t get raises, or tuition has to go up.”
 
AFSCME Local 3937 president Mary Austin says the university keeps trying to get rid of full-time staff and bring in contractors instead, which ends up costing more money.
 
Meanwhile, the cost of tuition is skyrocketing: Over the past decade, tuition and fees went up 65 percent for undergrads and 89 percent for graduate students, according to an SEIU report. But that money isn’t going to instruction: The U cut spending per student by about $1,000 over a 4 year period, adjusted for inflation.
 
Tuition is so expensive, academic advisor Ian Ringgenberg (with Academic Professionals and Administrators Senate) says staff are taking classes at community colleges because they can’t afford the U. Some of his students have to juggle school with 30 hours of work each week to pay for it.
 
Restoring full free tuition to staff would cost $3 million a year, the report says, while freezing tuition for students in 2017 would cost about $22 million.
 
Contrast that with where the U is putting its dollars: After the football scandal, they bought out the fired coach and his staff for $5 million and paid the new coach a contract worth nearly $18 million, according to the Pioneer Press.
 
“Forty percent of our members can’t afford to send our children to college,” Horazuk says. “That is intolerable and shameful. That is the reality at the university, both in terms of wages and tuition.”
 
“The university should be focusing on students and education, not being in the business of just making money,” says 3800 Executive Board member Amy Selvius.
 
Legislators Hilstrom and Dibble asked students and staff to come to the Capitol to tell their stories, so that it’s not just the University’s corporate voice being heard.
 
“There used to be a time when the University of Minnesota was very good to its workers,” Hilstrom says. “Residents had the opportunity to come to school, even if they were on the cusp and had some academic challenges.
 
“We need to make sure the University of Minnesota, when we fund it, has the ability to make education accessible,” Hilstrom says. “We need a culture of lifelong learning.”
 
 

“The university is spending all this money up there, and then they try to pit us against each other: They say we don’t get raises, or tuition has to go up.”