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AFSCME Conservative: University Offer Indecent
Op-ed printed in MN Daily Sept 11, 2003

Those who know me know I do not have much to say in support of unions in their negotiations with management. I believe most offers the unions are offered are fair or reasonable. I am the University's token right-winger. So as I write this, I warn my friends and colleagues to brace themselves, for I am about to shock them.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is right this time.

A few years ago during similar negotiations, the University acknowledged that step increases for employees actually did not cost them on the bottom line. Step increases occur on the anniversary of an employee's hire date. This savings occurs because what the University gains by keeping employees is somewhat satisfied through these usually token--1 percent to 2 percent--increases, which saves them from spending so much money, time and lost effort in retraining. In other words, the cost of step increases helps keep the jobs from turning over more often. Turnover is a very expensive part of business.

With that position of the University in mind, it is somewhat alarming to observe that the University offers no step increases to its employees.

Certainly the drumbeat from the University in negotiations has been "share the pain" and "budget crisis," but their actions throughout the campus do not uphold those mottos.

Having previously worked in the finance office of the Department of Family Practice, I know firsthand that cost-cutting efforts are strongest in only the minor areas. Perks such as parking are entirely the responsibility of the employees; that is, all but the employees at the top of the totem pole. Each faculty member is allotted several thousand dollars for traveling and to have their annual "trade membership" dues paid for.

If there is such a budget crisis to the extent where the University has to demand absolute wage freezes of the lowest-paid employees, then why are faculty and the administration receiving substantial wage increases? Perhaps the University should start acting in good faith and tie employees' wage increases to the same percentage increase that the University president and regents receive.

What the University has offered its employees is a wage freeze and no cost of living increases either. But, in the typical hypocritical fashion in which the University seems to excel, it refuses to freeze controllable employee expenses from rising. These are expenses such as parking or bus pass contracts with Metro Transit.

I understand that in every labor negotiation there is some give and take. Compromise is a necessity. So when the mediator informs the union negotiating crew the University's "negotiating committee is under direction directly from University President (Bob) Bruininks not to agree to do anything with eliminating subsequent probation or selection criteria," it begins to display the disingenuousness of the University.

The position the University has maintained in the contract negotiations this time has been to take away current benefits (layoff protection, seniority application) while preventing any giving (such as income increases, holding back on parking costs, etc.). At this point a proposal to maintain 100 percent status quo would be a gargantuan improvement over the University's final proposal.

To this point people should understand how odious the University's offer to its employees is. Now pile on top of that the proposal of the following morsel: Even though the University wants to freeze wages, take back vacation and sick leave conversion benefits and charge more for services to employees, they also want to decrease the percentage of health care they provide. This gives a net effect of a pay decrease. This is a pay decrease while faculty enjoy raises, travel to foreign countries for meetings at the expense of the University and administration meetings at places such as the Campus Club or fancy restaurants.

What exactly do the clerical workers on campus do? Certainly to be treated with such abject disdain by the University we must do nothing, right? We are the ones who actually pay the bills. We are the ones who fill out the forms the faculty refuse to do themselves. We are the ones who have to arrange for the first-class tickets for faculty to fly to places like Paris for a four-day conference. We are the ones who answer the phones and route the calls to those who feel they are too important to answer their own phones. What happens if we are not there because we are the ones doing the heavy lifting?

My advice to the University and Bruininks is to take a lesson from even mediocre leaders. Put forth the treatment you expect. If you allow yourselves to get raises at 5 percent to 15 percent, you should make certain the employees get the same increase. If you get your health benefits paid for amounting to a certain percentage of your salary, you should make certain your employees' health care is at a certain percentage of their pay.

Become a leader. And start negotiating in good faith--give the workers a contract you would expect to be given to you. Anything less is an insult.