U of M Regents Pass Shameful Budget

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents recently approved their 2020 budget, which includes tuition increases, the possibility of health care hikes, and a wage increase that doesn’t do enough to keep workers out of poverty.

Local 3800 Members Address University Board of Regents

At a public hearing prior to the Board’s vote on the budget, community stakeholders were invited to share their perspectives on the budget. Students, faculty, and fellow union members joined AFSCME members at the hearing to advocate for fair wages and affordable health care for front line workers at the U.

Meron Negussie, an AFSCME Local 3800 member who works for the Carlson School of Management’s Labor Education Center, tearfully shared her story with the Regents. Although Negussie began working at the University in 2015, she didn’t earn enough money as a full-time essential employee to afford the U’s offered health insurance until just last year. “As a single mother at that time,” Negussie told the Regents, “I had to make a choice to either get health care or put food on the table for my daughter and myself.”

Meron Negussie

Negussie implored the Board of Regents to consider front line workers like herself - and the families that rely on them - when making funding decisions about health insurance costs for employees. Questioning the Board in her final statement, Negussie spoke truth to power: “How is it that we are here 40 hours a week, considered essential employees, yet we can’t even get essential benefits and a livable wage? What is the point of good health care benefits if we can’t afford it?”

Now that her health is on the mend and her family is insured, Negussie says she’s dedicated to making health care affordable for everyone. She’s joined her fellow Local 3800 members in advocating for fair wages and affordable health care for all of the workers at the University. “I’m going to fight to make sure we all get these basic benefits – fair pay and health care we can afford – so that other University employees don’t have to go through what I went through,” she says. “There’s just no other way than to fight.”

We do the Work

Local 3800’s SvenErik Olsen took the public forum as an opportunity to highlight the University’s historical disinvestment in front line workers. He also asked the Regents to address the growing gap between the highest-paid managers and the underpaid workers who make the University run. “In the past five years, the number of employees making more than $300,000 a year was up by 17, while clerical workers have seen meager pay increases and further reductions through layoffs and attrition,” Olsen informed the Regents.

Olsen, a clerical worker at the Masonic Children’s Center, has been a University employee for nearly two decades. “More managers, fewer support staff: as an AFSCME steward, I’ve witnessed plenty of dysfunctional work environments exacerbated by the U’s upside-down business model,” he says. At the hearing, Olsen explained that this unsustainable trend isn’t just harmful to clerical workers like himself. “Fewer and fewer clerical workers are available to support faculty, students, researchers and clinicians - all of whom depend on front line staff to make their jobs more manageable, so they can focus on their groundbreaking work, their patients and their studies.”

AFSCME members pack the Board room for the budget hearing

Capping off his testimony, Olsen offered a challenge: “The University’s budget has been balanced on the backs of its front line workers for far too long. If further cuts are proposed, we trust that high-level administrators will take their turn at the chopping block.”

Negussie echoes Olsen’s sentiment, and says she wishes high-paid managers would come spend a day out on the field with the front line workers.  “I’d like to see them actually come and speak with us and see all the work we do, and how we live on our salary. Could they manage?  Could they live their lifestyle on what we’re making?” she asks. “And even more importantly - would they make these budget decisions right now if they were living as front line workers?”

Talk is Cheap

Cherrene Horazuk, Local 3800 President and AFSCME Council 5 Secretary, called the University’s administration out on the stingy compensation plan they proposed. She informed them that 85% of clerical workers at the U are women, and that 22% of union workers are people of color (that’s significantly more than other worker groups at the U). “It’s disingenuous to voice a commitment to racial and gender equity and claim that compensation is a top priority, while making your most diverse workforce struggle to get by,” Horazuk told the Regents. “Talk is cheap. It’s time to put your money where your mouth is. Front line workers deserve respect and raises that we cannot just survive on, but that we can thrive on.”

Horazuk pointed out that the proposed across-the-board 2.25% would benefit the U’s highest earners most, while leaving front line workers with scraps. “A 2.25% raise on our average salaries of $38,000 to $40,000 is significantly less actual money than 2.25% of a $100,000 salary,” the Local 3800 President said.

 “A system that allocates the same percentage regardless of employee group or wage scales ignores the gendered nature of work and perpetuates systemic racial inequities,” explained Horazuk. “We want the Regents to provide raises that close racial and gender pay gaps, not exacerbate them. Front line staff need to make real economic headway, and 2.25% is simply not enough.”

Disappointingly, the Board of Regents voted and approved the Budget on June 19. “The University continues to do a disservice to the working people of Minnesota with tuition raises and low projected wages for frontline staff,” said Horazuk following the vote. “We will fight in bargaining for fair wage increases and to fix our broken wage system so we can all make real economic progress. We also stand in solidarity with students demanding affordable education.”

Negussie agrees. She says by getting active in Local 3800, she’s found a stronger support network and a bigger voice. Even though the Board of Regents passed the disappointing budget, she’s confident that the power of University workers joining together will win their fight for fair pay and health insurance they can afford.

“It’s been a transformative experience. I feel empowered to speak up for myself and for others. I can demand a respectful workplace and to be treated with respect and dignity, to ask for more when I’m not being compensated or treated fairly,” she explains. On top of that, Negussie says the confidence and power she’s gained as an AFSCME member is having a positive impact at home. “In turn, I’ve been able to empower my daughter, too. I’ve taught her to stand up and speak up for herself.”