Monday not-quite-randomness: Labor Day edition [Rerun Sunday]

As mentioned in this space last week, the University is facing a strike by clerical, technical, and health-care workers that’s slated to start Wednesday. Last week’s bargaining[sic] session found the University coming back to the table without budging from the very same offer that workers had rejected when they declared their intent to strike.

So I dedicated a chunk of my Labor Day to writing the following letter to University President Bob Bruininks:

It’s the start of a new school year and — in all sorts of ways — the campus looks gorgeous. I’m especially impressed by the flowerbeds around the Mall area. Two weeks ago, they were nothing special. Today, they’re filled with brightly colored blooms. Minnesota has extraordinarily fertile soil, but I know those flowers didn’t suddenly blossom overnight. They were purchased and planted to make the campus look extra beautiful at a moment when students and parents could be suitably impressed. World class universities don’t look like sandlots. They’re scenic and picturesque.

At the other end of campus, where the old remote parking lots are being torn up to make way for the new football stadium, things may not look quite as pretty as those flowerbeds, but I know that this is growth that the University points to with pride. The temporary ugliness of bulldozers and cranes will give way to a sparkling new facility that will benefit the University community for decades to come. World class universities don’t limit themselves to short-term planning. They think big and they plan for the future.

Last spring, in what was widely hailed as a major coup, the University lured Tubby Smith away from Kentucky to coach the men’s basketball team. Big name coaches like Smith don’t walk away from big time programs for peanuts. Reportedly, his new contract earns him more than $2 million per year. World class universities don’t pinch pennies. They know that a high quality product often costs more, and they’re willing to pay for it.

This summer, some of the University’s lowest paid — but most vital — workers entered into a fresh round of contract negotiations with the University. They asked for a pay raise that would allow their incomes to keep pace with inflation. Reportedly, the gap between what the workers requested and what the administration offered amounts to a bit more than $2 million per year. World class universities don’t pinch pennies . . .

If the University of Minnesota genuinely wants to be one of the top three public research universities in the world, it can not pinch pennies when it comes to paying the people who are essential to making every department, every office, every unit on campus function. It needs to recognize that a high quality product often costs more — and it needs to be willing to pay for it. The University can find a way to pay for new flowers every August that will be gone by mid-September. The University can find a way to pay for a multimillion dollar stadium that will sit empty more days of the year than not. The University can find a way to pay a single coach enough money to resolve the current labor dispute. So why can’t the University find a way to give 3500 valued workers a wage increase that will let them keep food on their tables and a roof over their heads?

I recognize that, ideally, the University shouldn’t have to choose between flowers and football stadiums, coaches and clerical workers. There should be room for a world class university to have all those things — and more. I recognize as well that the University does not simply mint fresh money in the basement of Morrill Hall, and that there are often more demands — legitimate demands — on the University’s budget than it can adequately meet. Faced with the need to make tough choices, however, a world class university does not abandon the people who keep the machinery of the university running. It takes care of them first.

I like the fresh flowers very much. But I’d gladly forgo them — this year and every year — in favor of keeping knowledgeable, efficient staff members working at the University. Faculty can do our jobs perfectly well whether there’s a stadium on campus or not, whether the basketball coach is a Big Name or not. But we can’t do our jobs well without the colleagues who are currently asking for nothing more than the ability to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

I urge you to bring a fair and equitable offer back to the bargaining table — and to do so sooner, rather than later — so that the current labor dispute can be settled and so that we can all go back to the task of making the Minnesota the world class university we all believe it can be.

Gilbert B. Rodman
Associate Professor
Department of Communication Studies

You can find a brief explanation of “Rerun Sunday” here.

The post above originally appeared on 3 Sep 2007.

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