University Unions Lay It on the Line

Sarah Landmesser says one department she worked in “only wants workers to be submissive. They do not want creative humans with feelings and emotions.”
Sarah Landmesser says one department she worked in “only wants workers to be submissive. They do not want creative humans with feelings and emotions.”

Reprinted from AFSCME Council 5

Rep. Kim Norton (DFL-Rochester) has been on the House Higher Education committee for nine years. Her role includes oversight of the University of Minnesota. 

But after sitting in on a forum organized by University Unions United on Feb. 6, Norton says, “I have never had my eyes opened the way I have today.”

Norton and three other legislators expressed dismay after hearing AFSCME and Teamsters members share deeply personal stories of abusive bosses on campus, eroding paychecks and benefits, restricted opportunities for advancement, and a mindset that makes front-line workers disposable.

“I dare any professor with a Ph.D to come here and do their job without clerical support,” said Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray (DFL-Minneapolis). “You are not second-class workers; you are world-class workers.”

Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL-Minneapolis) and Rep. Sheldon Johnson (DFL-St. Paul) also attended the forum, which was organized by AFSCME Locals 3260, 3800, 3801 and 3937, and Teamsters Local 320. The event attracted more than 125 people to Coffman Union on the Twin Cities East Bank campus. Organizers say it is the first step by university unions to raise issues and work together to fix problems as they negotiate new contracts later this year.

Cherrene Horazuk, president of AFSCME Clerical Workers Local 3800, called the forum a chance “to hear from front-line workers about what our realities are and how that impacts the communities we live in.”

Photos from the University Unions United forum

Local 3800's Ruth Martin was among more than 125 people attending the Friday afternoon forum.
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Disparities in staffing, pay, benefits

That reality is sobering. Worker after worker told how the best parts of their jobs – the pride of helping students and researchers succeed, of helping the university improve lives in Minnesota and worldwide – routinely are undermined by university policies and practices that target them.

“They would rather spend hard-earned state dollars on M and M’s,” said Teresa Shunk, president of AFSCME Technical Local 3937. “Meetings and managers mean more to the university than people who support this institution.”

AFSCME research shows that the university has cut 830 jobs in union and civil service classifications over the past 10 years. Meanwhile, the ranks of administrators, “professional,” and faculty positions have grown by more than 1,600. 
That is not the only disparity, Horazuk says:

  • Wages at the top are rising faster than wages for front-line workers.
  • Professional and administrative staff get six weeks of paid parental leave, but unionized and civil service workers get only two weeks.
  • To add insult to injury, the university even eliminated “staff appreciation day” to save money.

Impossible to get ahead

“People say you’ve been working at the university for 30 years. You must be making a lot of money,” says Local 3800 member Laura Mirelez. “In reality, we are part of the working poor.” Mirelez can’t help her son pay for college, she says, and despite her decades of service, can’t afford to retire.

“It’s exhausting being a second-class citizen on campus,” says Sophia Benrud, a Local 320 member who cooks in a university dining hall. “We love the university; we just wish we could be appreciated for the job we do.”

“I work paycheck to paycheck,” says Local 320 member Naseer Nur, who works in buildings and grounds. “I work for survival, not for living”

Local 320’s Mike Johnson says he and his co-workers are tired of hearing lip service about the value of the jobs they do. “We’re considered essential employees – when the snow comes and the university shuts down, we’re still expected to be here. But when contract time rolls around, we don’t hear that much anymore, that we’re essential employees.”

Local 3800's Stefanie Yorek: "There was a time when it could be argued that we traded lower wages for great, cheap health insurance. That trade-off has long come to an end.'
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Divide on campus mirrors divide in state

Workers say that although it’s university policy to pay a “living wage,” their take-home pay is decreasing – especially because the university requires them to pay a bigger share of health costs. To counter that, the unions are seeking a tiered system, in which lower-paid workers pay less for insurance than higher-paid staff.

But the impact of university policies and practices goes beyond individual workers, Horazuk says. “The greatest predictor of academic achievement, both in terms of high school and college success, is family income. However, nearly half of the unionized workforce at the U earns below a living wage.”

That reality only solidifies existing racial and gender gaps in Minnesota, she says, because the university’s front-line workforce has a higher percentage of women and workers of color. “As the sixth-largest employer in the State of Minnesota, and as the state’s land grant university, it’s time for the U to close the gap between haves and have nots within its own workforce,” Horazuk says. “The university should commit to be an excellent employer, not just an excellent research institution.”

Indignities large and small

But pay is not the only issue for front-line workers. Nur says his supervisor refuses to give him the two days off he requests each year – unpaid – so he can celebrate Muslim holidays with his family.

Local 3937’s Mary Austin says a survey of front-line staff highlighted widespread problems with bosses who can bully and abuse workers without repercussions. Older workers report “being harassed out of their job.” Workers at all levels report a general lack of opportunities. To many, Austin says, “there is no hope for advancement.”   
Cuts in the Regents Scholarship program – which used to let staff take classes for free – makes it increasing expensive and unlikely that workers can attend or afford the very university they work for. Yet workers who try to transfer to another department to advance their careers, such as Local 3800’s Sarah Landmesser, must go through probation again, even if the new jobs has the same duties as their old job.

“This puts me at risk of losing my job for whatever reason – or no reason,” Landmesser says. That’s especially risky for workers – such as union activists – who speak their minds, she says. 

“We are not asking for charity at all,” says Local 320’s Angel Aguilar, who, among other tasks, cleans 28 bathrooms a day in dormitories. “We just want real fair treatment.”