Friday, September 26, 2003

Miami abuzz about strike

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

OXFORD - At the normally tranquil campus of Miami University, the students and support staff lined the streets today, shouting and holding signs to show their outrage over low wages.

Union members protest under a giant inflatable skunk at Miami University today.
(Associated Press photo)
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The first strike in Miami University's history has caused a stir on the campus. Passers-by honked horns and showed the thumbs-up sign to food service workers, maintenance employees, and members of the grounds crew. One student said her economics professor let students out 20 minutes early because the shouting and noise disrupted the class.

"We heard all the cheering and honking," said Sarah Arnason, 20, a junior from Charlottesville, Va. "Finally, my economics professor said, 'Oh, forget it.' And he let us out 20 minutes early. And that's the point. We want to disrupt the university as much as possible while the strike is going on."

The university's Board of Trustees met early this morning in a regularly scheduled meeting. Holly Wissing, spokeswoman for the University, said, "The university has made its best and final offer. No new negotiations are planned."

The football game between Miami and the University of Cincinnati will go on as planned here Saturday, but, according to university officials, it will not be televised. Technicians from the network will not cross the picket lines.

The game would have been televised locally on WSTR-TV (Channel 64) and nationally on ESPN Plus. "It means everybody is going to have to buy tickets," said Wissing.

The tentative three-year agreement that was rejected late Thursday was largely the same as the university's most recent offer. It would have included:
• A 4.25 percent pay increase the first year and a 3 percent increase in each of the next two years.
• A guarantee that if non-union hourly workers receive more than a 3 percent increase in 2004 and 2005, bargaining unit members would receive an equal increase.
• A guarantee limiting health insurance increases over the life of the contract. Miami employees pay no monthly premium, but starting Jan. 1, 2004, a sliding scale would be implemented with bargaining unit employees paying 1 percent to 3 percent of the university's cost.
• The university will appoint two union representatives to a committee by Oct. 15 that will review starting wages for all hourly employees.
• New hires on the lowest level of the pay scale, hired after the 4.25 percent pay increase is implemented, would receive a separate 4 percent increase in March 2004.
By a 55 percent to 45 percent vote, Local 209 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees voted to strike Thursday night. The walkout began at 12:01 a.m. today.

By voting to strike, workers rejected a tentative agreement that had been reached earlier in the day with negotiators for Miami.

School officials said the strike would have minimal impact on classes or other operations. About 100 strike replacements had already been hired. The union represents about 860 workers.

According to union negotiator Bob Turner, workers would picket the administration building and work sites across campus. During Saturday's football game, the employees hope to bring in other union members from across Ohio.

Turner reminded strikers to act peacefully and encouraged other workers not to cross the picket lines.

"Now remember, if we go out together, we're going to come back together," he said to roaring applause Thursday night at Talawanda High School, where the vote was taken.

"I think it's a big mistake," said Miami spokesman Richard Little. "I think they're being misled by the union leadership. Obviously, this is the same offer that's going to be on the table when the strike is done. I'm very surprised and disappointed that we've come to this."

Before the final vote tally was announced, Vonda Smith, a five-year custodial worker at Miami's Middletown campus, echoed the sentiments of many who voted. "I hope it's rejected," she said. "With these raises, all I'm going to be making is 39 cents more per hour. That's no kind of raise, and we're tired of it. We need more money."

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

At Yale, two unions representing roughly 4,000 campus workers went on strike Aug. 27. Two weeks ago, 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.

Voting on the Miami contract began about 9:30 p.m. Thursday, an hour after a closed meeting with the union's negotiating team began at the high school. During the meeting, union members could be heard shouting at the negotiating team.

Votes were counted by about 10:30 p.m.

About 300 union members voted.

The most recent contract expired Aug. 15.

Jon Gambrell contributed to this report. E-mail

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