US: University workers strike at corporate education

On October 21, the University of Minnesota (U of M) was shocked by its first strike in 60 years.

For two weeks, members of the 1,800-strong American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3800 battled it out on the picket lines. The clerical workers’ union is 93% women, who are coincidentally the lowest paid workers on campus, despite many being their family’s sole provider.

Months of negotiations proved that U of M administrators were gunning to take back all the benefits the clerical workers had won since they formed their union in the late 1980’s.

The proposed contract demanded massive increases in health care costs, an elimination of annual step increases, and a one-year wage freeze. The University also refused to adopt new contract language assuring basic job security. The Administration blamed the state legislature’s $195 million budget cut to the U of M, saying that we all have to “share the pain.”

However, the unelected bureaucrats who run this school are sharing nothing. The president of the University alone makes over $340,000 a year plus a free mansion. While claiming poverty, they somehow managed to find $24.7 million to build the Translational Research Facility, which will provide free public research for the medical industry.

The union fought a heroic battle on the picket lines, especially given the oncoming winter. The outpouring of community support was impressive. 161 classes were taught off-campus, while Coca Cola and UPS drivers refused to make deliveries. Other local unions and community groups gave donations of food and money. After the first week, students’ backpacks and jackets were covered with blue "I support campus workers" buttons.

Students Sit-in

The support climaxed with a student occupation of Morril Hall, the administrative office building, which Socialist Alternative played a leading role in organizing. On the Tuesday one week after the strike began, 17 students sat inside the President’s office demanding that the administration reopen negotiations. Within an hour, the number of students swelled to nearly 80.

The occupation continued on Wednesday, with over 150 students joining in. By Thursday, the Administration, clearly anxious and shaken, locked down the building, allowing just 18 students to meet with U of M President Bruininks. 16 of them remained inside after the meeting, refusing to leave until negotiations were reopened.

That evening, 450 supporters gathered outside expecting to see the 16 inside dragged out and arrested. Instead, they were treated to an announcement that the University had agreed to restart the negotiation process, and protest turned into celebration.

Unfortunately, the result of these negotiations was a contract only slightly better than management’s original offer.

But even so, the strike was an important step forward. Union workers were politicized and mobilized by the strike, and they are more confident of their collective strength.

The unorganized faculty and teaching assistants also witnessed the power of a union. Hundreds of students were mobilized, and thousands more were radicalized. Some even mentioned that they learned more during the two weeks of the strike than they had in years of school.

Fighting to Win

Nonetheless, a lot needs to be done to prepare this fertile ground for the next round of struggle. Workers and supporters at the University need to figure out what it will take to fight and win a better contract next time.

Around half of the 1,800 represented by AFSCME Local 3800 crossed the picket lines. Most were “fair share” employees who have not joined the union. An ambitious effort needs to be organized to explain the need for class solidarity, and to recruit all clerical workers into the union.

The biggest weakness of the strike was the union’s isolation. The other unions on campus broke ranks and agreed to the University’s rotten “final offer.” Alone, AFSCME Local 3800 was not able to seriously disrupt University business. A unified strike by all campus workers would shut the entire campus down and bring the administration to its knees.

In preparing for contract negotiations two years from now, U of M unions should clearly commit to a joint negotiations strategy aimed at mobilizing all campus workers for a serious, united showdown with the administration.

This will require a change in strategy and leadership in the Teamsters union, which represents maintenance, grounds, janitorial, and food service workers. During negotiations, a clear mood in favor of striking emerged in the Teamsters’ rank and file, but the “leadership” provided no lead and showed no inclination to fight. In this context, workers narrowly voted to accept the horrible contract offer. Winning a decent contract in two years will require rank-and-file members to put forward a fighting program and strategy that can create a new determined leadership in the local.

Further developing solidarity between labor and students is also essential. A joint campaign against corporate welfare and budget cuts in education, with a student focus against tuition hikes, will go a long way in solidifying the unity that already exists.

The seeds of this struggle have been planted at the University of Minnesota. A concentrated effort to cultivate this new militant mood will yield future victories for students and workers.

Socialist Alternative is the cwi in the US.

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November 2003