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Striking workers leave MnSCU short-staffed
By Jeff Horwich
Minnesota Public Radio
October 2, 2001
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More than a quarter of the workers in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system walked off the job when the state's two largest public employees' unions went on strike. The 34 schools in the system are entering largely uncharted territory. The Minnesota Council of State, County and Municipal Employees last went on strike in 1981 - before MnSCU existed.

Leaders of (from left) MAPE, AFSCME, The Inter Faculty Organization, and Teamsters at SCSU gather for a joint rally on Day one of the strike.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
It took most of the day before MnSCU officials got the numbers in from around the state, telling them just how many employees had not shown up for work.

Ninety-one percent of the system's 3,700 AFSCME union members chose to strike. The system has 1200 members of MAPE, the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, and 78 percent of them struck Monday.

With similar numbers at St. Cloud State University, the largest school in the system, university communications director Lisa Foss says classes will go on, but it may be a bumpy ride outside the classroom.

"AFSCME is primarily our clerical staff, and our general maintenance workers," she said. "Our MAPE employees are primarily in our business services and our information technology area, such as our Web site and our e-mail, computers and servers."

The school has contracted with outside companies to keep its boilers going, and help it reboot in the event of a computer catastrophe. Financial aid, student registration, and payroll processing will be slowed by the empty desks normally filled by AFSCME members.

And certain projects will sit unfinished without the attention of people like Bruce Probach, carrying a picket sign just outside Foss's office in the administration building.

Painter Bruce Probach, right, and Department of Social Work office manager Barb Hartkapf march on the first day of the strike outside the SCSU administration building.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
"I'm in the maintenance department - a painter," he said. "I guess I've been here at the college about 13 and a half years. This is the first strike I've been involved with. Last Friday I was working down in Halenbeck [Hall], they're redoing their main gym. So I would be working down there today. But it'll just have to wait for a while."

With a lot of things now waiting, SCSU's Lisa Foss echoes MnSCU officials who say their top priority is continuity in the classroom. Faculty members have thrown their support behind the striking workers, but classes will take place as scheduled.

"The faculty are there, the materials are ready, the labs are ready, so that students can go to class and can feel very little disconnect in their educational experience," Foss said.

Kristi Tornquist, dean of Learning Resources and Technology Services, suddenly finds herself short as many as 50 employees. Some of the MAPE computer technicians are tough to replace and hard to be without.

"We have thousands of computers across campus that are maintained by dozens of technicians," she said. "On any one day we have immediate machine failures to large-scale failures, and those people are absolutely crucial to those services."

It's the same story in the library, where Tornquist says books and magazines are quite literally piling up behind the counter in the absence of circulation and clerical workers.

MnSCU schools will wait before possibly turning to temporary agencies to handle some tasks. Laurie Lethmers, the president of AFSCME Council 6 Local 753 and the head the school's office of alumni relations, says it might not be so simple here.

"The agencies here in town will not send workers over picket lines," she said. "So they're going to have a real hard time finding temporaries if that's what they decide to do."

Even with the hassle and uncertainty, the experience won't necessarily mean bad blood between the schools and their workers. The school's president was out greeting picketers the first morning of the strike, and Lisa Foss says MnSCU intends to stay out of the fray.

"This isn't a St. Cloud State issue," she said. "This is an issue between AFSCME and MAPE and the state of Minnesota. These are our employees and we respect their right to strike. I mean, if they feel that they're in a situation where this is their last recourse in resolving their contract, that's their right, and we support them in the fact that they need to do this."

Because this campus never shuts down, neither will the picket line. Until negotiators reach a deal, striking workers will be here 24 hours a day, seven days a week.