Strike possible at University of Minnesota as service workers fight for higher wages

Union pushes for better pay and working conditions, while the Twin Cities campus struggles to provide adequate food for students, with Lunchables offered as options.

Service workers at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities are preparing to strike over what they say are poor wages and job conditions unless they can reach an acceptable deal with the administration in the coming days.

The Teamsters Local 320, which represents the 1,500 workers who handle food service, maintenance, and cleaning of facilities, says a weekslong vote will end on Oct. 7 and there will be a strike on Monday, Oct. 10, if significant changes are not made to a contract that expired on June 30.

They are demanding, among other things, that the university raise wage rates to $20 per hour to start for those workers along with promised step increases in the future. Although there have been discussions between the factions, the Teamsters say bargaining has been one-sided thus far, calling UMN’s initial offer “insulting” and that it “in no way, shape or form addresses poverty wages at the University of Minnesota.”

“It’s shameful that the University of Minnesota has a billion dollars left over at the end of the year, coming off the backs of workers who are homeless and don’t have enough money for food,” said Brian Aldes, Secretary-Treasurer for Teamsters Local 320. “The State of Minnesota, UMN President Joan Gabel, and the Board of Regents need to understand that if our brothers and sisters at the university are forced to strike, the Teamsters are ready to take up this fight, no matter the cost.”

Aldes mentioned soaring inflation and a lack of pay as one of the drivers that has forced workers into this position. But Teamsters 320 also noted in a press release in late August that they also were facing “abusive employment practices.” According to a survey done of more than 450 current and former service employees, one-half of women and non-binary workers and almost a third of workers of color said that they have been discriminated against by supervisors. Teamsters also said workers are facing additional challenges, such as ensuring the proper care of UMN’s medical research animals and food service.

In the past week, students, families, and local news media have posted images and videos showing the paltry offerings of food in its dining facilities at certain periods of the day, which at one point included stacks of Lunchables and boxed pizzas.

The university acknowledged the struggles of its teams to keep up with demand and meet responsibilities under paid dining plans, releasing a statement this week to students:

“Due to ongoing staffing shortages that have impacted student dining experiences this fall, the University will credit all students living in residence halls with an amount equivalent to 50 percent of their monthly dining charge for September. The credit reflects reduced service hours and menu options available during the month. … The University and its dining vendor, M Food Co., continue to work diligently to resolve the staffing shortages that have resulted in reduced hours of operations and food availability. We hope to return to full capacity in the near future.”

But that could be challenging if regular service workers decide to strike. Many of them picketed the campuses, representing facilities, dining, and housing areas.

“There are currently 100’s of job openings at the “U”, jobs that cannot be filled because the wages are too low,” Aldes said. “The university is dealing with this by bringing in temp workers who are making more than those of us who have worked here for years. We are not going to put up with this. Everything costs more and our families are struggling to make ends meet.”

The union said the situation for workers is dire. Nearly two-thirds are struggling to pay for essentials each month, and more than 10% have been homeless at one time while working for UMN. Teamsters also cited a study from the university’s human resources office that shows these workers are getting paid 13% below the median market value.

“We don’t want to go on strike,” Sara Parcells, a buildings and grounds worker, said in a statement. “We want to continue to do our jobs to keep the university up and running for UMN students, but we’re not making enough to pay our bills and put food on the table. UMN brings in billions of dollars each year off the backs of people like me. It’s time UMN supports working people in Minnesota and pays its essential workers a living wage.”

Whether UMN will make further concessions is unclear. Like so many institutions across the nation, it is struggling with labor shortages. But it did offer an olive branch of sorts, releasing this statement to University Business on the potential to meet at least some of the Teamsters’ wishes:

“The University of Minnesota remains committed to reaching a settlement agreement with the Teamsters and our next mediation session is scheduled for October 6 and 7. We continue to look for opportunities to collaborate with our union partners and resume mediation in order to reach a solution for Teamsters members before a strike occurs. In the meantime, we are making contingency plans to ensure continuity of operations.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

Most Popular