Monday, September 22, 2003

Miami strike deadline nears

'Tent City' shows backing for support workers

By Jon Gambrell
Enquirer contributor

OXFORD - In the manicured front lawn of Miami University's administration building, the tents stand out, a constant reminder of growing labor tensions.

Known as "Tent City," some 20 students and union activists are camping out as a support-worker strike looms. The administration and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 209 remain deadlocked despite negotiations that began this summer. The union of nearly 900 custodial, food service and maintenance workers has set a Thursday strike date.

The university, while saying it still hopes to avoid a strike, has begun hiring replacement workers. Temporary employees will start today on a week-to-week basis, Miami spokeswoman Holly Wissing said last week.

Union leaders say the university has been hostile for years, and the current standoff comes with a backdrop of efforts across the country to raise pay for university support staff.

AFSCME Local 209 was formed in 1986, when it signed its first operating contract with the university. It lasted until Aug. 21, 1989.

Although a 1989 move by some workers to decertify the union was rejected by a state board, the university said that the union no longer represented "a continued majority of the bargaining unit." Lawsuits went to the Ohio Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the union in 1994.

Union president Randy Marcum, a "Tent City" resident who says he is on a hunger strike, says the years of being locked out from bargaining with the university weakened the union.

Marcum said some workers support families on as little as $7.73 an hour. Wissing said most of the union workers earn $9 to $9.99 an hour, with skilled craftsmen earning $19.73 per hour.

The university uses a "broadband" pay schedule, which pays according to an individual employee's performance and taking part in job enrichment, Wissing said.

"The broadband pay plan matches the mission of the university with compensation awarding worker training and performance," she said.

Ohio State University uses the same pay plan, she said.

Other campuses face discord

Miami has joined other universities that have "fair labor" conflicts.

Two years ago, Harvard students stormed an administration building to demand a living wage for support staff. Under the slogan "because workers can't eat prestige," the student group is still working to raise wages.

At Yale University, two unions representing roughly 4,000 campus workers went on strike Aug. 27. Last week, Yale and the unions reached a tentative eight-year contract that will give many workers raises of more than 40 percent over the life of the pact.

Fair labor associations have also been active at Notre Dame, Xavier, Kent State and other colleges.

For Jeanne Hey, a political science and international studies professor at Miami, student involvement is key for the union.

"I have been pleasantly surprised how active students are with the Fair Labor Coalition," she said. "They are not a majority, but they have been doing a lot. The university has been very committed to diversity and has been happy to be a part of that effort. Over the last few years, we are becoming aware that diversity is not only a matter of race, gender or sexuality, but also class. The issue of class is right on campus, with the people cleaning and making our food. This strike comes at the right time." Hey said faculty members are debating what is the right way to support the union in a strike.

With some planning not to cross picket lines and to hold classes either outside, off-campus or not at all, Hey said that professors don't want to alienate students or parents when their support is vital.

Police step up preparations

Union officials promise an "intellectual" picket line, but coming on the heels of mass arrests during the Yale strike, Miami University's police department is adjusting schedules in preparation.

"We have the maximum staff deployed during the hours of darkness, so now we'll be putting more staff during the day," said Miami University Police Lt. Andrew Powers. "We will obviously take every precaution we can to protect everyone."

Powers said Miami University's police department is in regular contact with the Oxford Police Department and he's confident the departments will have the staff to handle any problems. Thus far, the university has not received any threats, according to Powers.

"I have no concerns for my safety," said sophomore microbiology student Alison Gardner of Finneytown. "It might be less convenient to eat (on campus) than it has been." Gardner, who lives in a dorm on campus and has a student food service job, said her only complaint is about fliers urging student workers to strike alongside the union workers.

"I need to work," she said. "I've felt misinformed by the fliers. We could be fired for not going in."


The Associated Press contributed to this report. E-mail

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