UMD Local Fights with Renewed Spirit
AFSCME members at UMD are undergoing an awakening about just how essential their union is.
Years of budget cuts have put pressure on workers, and more cuts are expected at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Workers are concerned about what that will mean for already overburdened employees, especially with the Trump administration’s stance toward public education and public services.
All of these factors are leading to an uptick in interest and involvement in Local 3801 at UMD: Last week, nearly 100 people across the campus chatted with representatives as part of the AFSCME Strong campaign to talk more frequently with co-workers, find out what issues they care about, and work together to fix those issues while increasing everyone’s power.
Looking out for each other
“There will be a lot more people going to Day on the Hill than in years past,” says Local 3801 Treasurer and steward Geraldine Hughes.
“People are wanting to know how to get involved and do more,” says Andrea Sande, member of 3801’s Executive Board. “Your employer is looking out for your employer. You need to be joined together to be looking out for each other, for the best interests of your co-workers and your family.”
Hughes, Sande, local secretary Jeanne Peterson, steward Nancy Damberg and Executive Board member Julie Smith spent several weeks putting the AFSCME Strong push together. They charted their membership, mapped it out building by building, and tied up bundles of chocolates to hand out in festive green.
Part of what spurred them to action was Trump and his fellow Republicans’ push toward “right-to-work” (for less money, fewer benefits and less job security), especially if unions are not as strong as they can be.
“We need our numbers,” Hughes says. “That’s why we decided to do this. With the new administration, I’m kind of scared. With all the other states coming to right-to-work, we don’t want this to happen.”
Building power together
These union leaders hope that by building numbers and building power, they can help stop the anti-worker effort in its tracks.
“The only strength and chance we have is working together,” Sande says. “The Trump administration has made it very clear he does not support unions and will be nominating people who don’t support unions. He’s already contacted Scott Walker.”
AFSCME Local 3801 members have a clear view of what’s at stake for public workers if they lose their union. They don’t need to look far – they just need to look to the past at UMD.
Workers joined AFSCME in the late 1980s and signed their first contract in 1991, says Kathee Abrahamson, a longtime union leader who recently retired from UMD.
“There was a big good old boy network when I came on board,” she says. “I didn’t feel people were treated fairly and nicely. At that point in time, I knew if any place needed a union, the university did.”
Huge gains made
Pay and workplace rules differed not only from department to department, but supervisor to supervisor, as did breaks and many other benefits. Favoritism was so rampant and even petty that someone might only be allowed to have one item on a desk, while others could bring in whatever they wanted, she recalled.
Abrahamson saw men get 12 percent and even 22 percent raises during a hiring freeze while she was stuck at her starting wage for two years. It wasn’t until the first contract was signed that she finally got a raise.
Over time, AFSCME members’ gains included:
- Contracts that ensured people would be treated fairly, and defined work rules and job descriptions
- Cost-of-living raises and step increases
- Ending at-will employment and establishing firing only for just cause
- Breaks and time for lunch
- Policies for overtime and comp time
- Paid parental leave
- A $15 minimum hourly wage
“If we had not organized, the quality, the equity for clerical workers wouldn’t be what it is today,” Abrahamson says.
Nobody wants to go back to those days, and with more cuts looming, workers want to keep the protection of a strong contract that prevents them from having to do other departments’ work without compensation.
“There is power in numbers,” Peterson says. “The louder our voices, the more voices we have, the more strength and hopefully positive outcomes we’ll have.”