University of Minnesota service workers vote to strike over ‘poverty wages’

By: - October 10, 2022 6:24 pm

Marissa Bremer-Roark, a building and grounds worker at the University of Minnesota, leads her fellow workers in a chant calling for higher wages on Aug. 30, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Some 1,500 custodians, cooks, groundskeepers and other services workers across the University of Minnesota’s five campuses are threatening to strike for the first time in history unless the university agrees to substantial pay increases.

“We intend to end poverty wages at the University of Minnesota,” said Mick Kelly, 65, a cook who’s worked at the university for 20 years. “We have members who are homeless. We have members who are my age living in people’s basements. That’s the reality of work at the university right now.”

Workers, who are unionized with the Teamsters Local 320, voted by a 93% margin to authorize a strike, rejecting the university’s “last best final offer,” which included the highest pay increase for Teamsters employees in 26 years, according to the university.

Service workers would see an average 5% pay increase under the one-year contract proposed by the university, while workers at the top of the pay scale would get a one time bonus of $500. The average starting wage for a Teamsters job would rise to $21.67 an hour, according to the university.

“The University provides our employees not only with fair pay, but with extensive and generous health and wellbeing benefits,” said Kenneth Horstman, the university’s vice president for human resources, in a statement sent to students, faculty and staff last week.

The Teamsters balked at the offer, pointing out that the raises wouldn’t make up for what their paychecks have lost in value because of soaring inflation. The union is seeking a 10% general wage increase and an additional 5% increase for long-term workers at the top of their pay scale. They also want year-round work for their members, many of whom are only contracted for the school year but cannot collect unemployment benefits during the summers.

“We know (President) Joan Gabel and the university administration can afford to pay us living wages. The university has record revenues, and administrators are giving themselves huge raises,” said Sara Parcells, who’s worked as a groundskeeper at the university for 25 years. “The time is now for Teamsters to get the raise they deserve.”

Gabel received a 22% raise this fiscal year with her entire compensation package valued at $1.08 million, which is in line with the salaries of other Big Ten university presidents.

Mick Kelly, a cook at the University of Minnesota, speaks at a press conference announcing a strike vote by service workers unionized with Teamsters Local 320 on Oct. 10, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The union didn’t say when it would strike or for how long. Teamsters Local 320 Secretary-Treasurer Brian Aldes said the union would file its intent to strike on Tuesday, which kicks off a 10-day cooling off period.

“I don’t know if the university believes that the union and its membership are bluffing. But the union’s membership has spoken loud and clear. We are not willing to continue to earn poverty wages,” Aldes said.

University service employees working full time do earn enough to be above the federal poverty level, which is $27,740 for a family of four. However, the wages of many of the workers do not cover the cost of living, which is $112,487 a year for a family of four in Hennepin County, according to the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development.

A recent survey of service workers at the university found that 61% do not have enough money to pay for basic expenses, 44% have put off paying bills to buy groceries in the past year and 8% have experienced homelessness while working for the university.

After years of modest raises, staff wages are 13% lower than the market rate, according to the university’s own analysis.

The union is also pushing to increase the minimum wage for its members to $20 an hour at the university. It’s currently $15 an hour, where it’s been stuck since 2017.

The union’s minimum wage is now the same as that for all workers at large companies in Minneapolis, under the city’s minimum wage law. Starting this fall, non-union university students will also make at least $15 an hour.

Union workers say the low wages are why the university can’t fill scores of vacant jobs. The labor shortage is particularly severe in food services, with students reporting one dining hall serving “Lunchables,” which are prepackaged snacks and meals usually aimed at schoolchildren. The university said the Lunchables were not offered as a meal replacement but were given away for free since they were nearing expiration. Because of a lack of food options, the university has offered to refund students for some of their September dining costs.

To fill empty positions, the university has also turned to gig workers and out-of-state temporary workers, who earn higher hourly wages than longtime union staff.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.

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