AFSCME calls on U of M to pass fair budget

Local 3937 president Mary Austin asks the University of Minnesota to pay frontline workers fair wages.
Local 3937 president Mary Austin asks the University of Minnesota to pay frontline workers fair wages.

Workers and students at the University of Minnesota are calling on the Board of Regents to pass a budget that’s fair and more transparent.

The Board of Regents is scheduled to vote June 20 on a $3.9 billion budget. But the Board has taken an unusual step – it’s not holding a hearing where the public can testify, not even the students and workers most affected by it.

Instead, the board is only allowing written comments online, which won’t be published until June 16, a few days before the decision is made.

“They should have to look us in the eye when they are making decisions that affect us on a daily basis,” says AFSCME Local 3800 president Cherrene Horazuk, who serves on Council 5’s Executive Board. “They’re doing whatever they can to limit opposition to their budget proposals. We refuse to be silenced.”

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The empty chairs at the protest symbolize the absence of worker and student voices from the budget process.

To protest this lack of transparency and accountability, members of AFSCME Locals 3800 and 3937, Teamsters Local 320, SEIU and the P&A Senate (professionals and administrators) joined students in protesting outside the Regents meeting Thursday.

They put out empty folding chairs with the name of a different board member taped to each one to signify both the absence of the regents, and of student and worker voices in the budget process. About a dozen people spoke, presenting the testimony they would have given if allowed to do so.

“We don’t feel we’re respected,” says Teamsters Local 320 vice president Curt Swenson. “Our workers aren’t respected wage-wise, discipline-wise, attendance policy-wise. We demand to be respected just as much as faculty and administrators.”

Horazuk says the workload for frontline employees has become overwhelming. In the past 20 years, she says, the U has cut its clerical positions by half and has 30 to 40 percent fewer technical workers.

“The administration looks to our positions first,” she says. “When they’re talking about administrative efficiencies, they don’t look at the positions at the top, making lots of money. They look at the front line.”

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AFSCME members joined students, Teamsters, SEIU and P&A to protest the budget.

AFSCME members are currently negotiating their contract with the U. It’s apparent the U will angle for small raises: University staff who presented the budget Thursday built it around the assumption workers would get raises of 1 percent or 2 percent, even though workers are still far behind from earlier pay freezes.

Some regents and administrators pointed to the smaller legislative appropriation passed this session, and talked about the difficulty of holding the line on tuition while offering raises.

But union members and students say the U doesn’t have to choose between a livable wage and affordable tuition.  

“The U is trying to make itself appear poor, financially challenged, that the only thing it can afford is 2 percent for compensation,” says the Teamsters Mick Kelly. “We know that is untrue. The U is awash with money.”

Kelly pointed to the U’s rich cash reserves and hefty spending on top administrators. The U had enough money to spend several million buying out its football coach and crew over a sexual assault investigation.

Yet frontline workers like Nicole Masika, a library assistant, feel like they can’t catch a break. The Local 3937 secretary says past pay freezes have left her with mounting credit card debt.

“Never did I imagine working at the University would put me to the edge of bankruptcy,” she says. “The amount of credit card debt I have is approximately equal to the amount of raises I would have gotten if the freeze had not happened. The University doesn’t seem very interested in making up for this deficit. They seem to have plenty of money to spend elsewhere.”

Masika says it’s time for the U to make cuts at the top, rather than among front-line workers. Her financial situation has grown so difficult, she’s had to ask her kids for help.

“I’m angry I have to ask them,” she says. “I was hoping to still help them at this point. I’d like to make economic progress, but really I need help to keep from falling further behind.”