Classes start this week at UMM and next week at our branch campuses in the Twin Cities, and it looks like we might get to deal with a clerical workers’ strike. AFSCME Local 3800 is taking to the picket lines to protest the inadequate pay raises offered to them. We’re all tightening our belts in our underfunded universities — we’ve had salary and hiring freezes in the few years I’ve been here, and we’re seeing cuts to library services and teaching lab support; you could argue, I suppose, as university president Bruininks does, that we’re all in this together and that everyone should compromise and accept these yearly parings-away together.
Bruininks acknowledged that a first-day-of-school strike “would not be pleasant.” He also said that the university would have to adjust its budgets if the AFSCME workers are given a larger contract.
“We would have to go back and make some appropriate adjustments to [other employee groups’] compensation,” Bruininks said. “When you start to multiply the impact of this, the impact could be very great.
“The only way it could happen would be by cutting budgets and, inevitably, that means laying people off. I don’t think it’s a very good bargain and I’m not willing to enter into one that will weaken the university at this time.”
But I’m afraid I reject that argument altogether — in fact, it’s a little bit sneaky and nasty, an attempt to turn this into contention between the different labor units of the university. I doubt that’s going to happen — unions tend to know that they have to stand together — so I’m not too impressed with Bruininks for trying it.
We’ve been suffering with a Republican governor whose persuasive promise that got him elected was the usual idiotic “no new taxes” pledge, which means that working budgets everywhere get slowly cut away. We’ve seen a drastic demonstration of where that leads in our transportation infrastructure recently, and we’re seeing the same erosion going on in the Minnesota educational system. People have to learn that if you want good roads and safe bridges, you pay for them. If you want good schools and colleges, you pay for them. They don’t come free. You can make cuts in basic maintenance and suspend or slow cost-of-living increases for a few years and make a false saving for a little while, but those will rebound on you a few years down and cost you more than if you’d been responsible over the long run.
Bruininks is wrong to say the only way to give reasonable salary increases is by cutting budgets. The other way is for the government of this state to take responsibility for providing adequate budgets for one of the most important programs in its purview, the education of our citizens.
Bruininks also has a dream of increasing the University of Minnesota’s reputation as a research university. That doesn’t come cheap; he has to realize that he’s not going to achieve it by nickel-and-diming our secretaries and threatening to lay off a few custodians. He’s not going to accomplish it while getting by on a lean budget from our tight-fisted legislature.
I have to applaud AFSCME Local 3800 — they are standing up for all of us in the university. They are making the sacrifices for all of us. They are sending the signal to the administration that you can’t build a premier institution by neglecting the people that form it. And if they do have to go on strike next week, I’m going to be grateful for what they are doing.