Saturday, September 27, 2003

Strikers ready for long haul

Most Miami workers show up for work

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Picketers line High Street in Oxford in front of Roudebush Hall.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
OXFORD - A single hand-painted sign supporting workers in Miami University's first-ever strike is the only hint of discord along the two-lane road that leads to the school.

But once one arrives on campus, whistles, bullhorns and placards - marks of a union effort to publicize discontent over wages - quickly become an arresting contrast to the cornfields and churches that dot U.S. 27 leading to the university.

Hours after members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 209 rejected the university's most recent contract offer Thursday night, scores of food service, maintenance and grounds workers walked off their posts to stand in the rain. The pickets have been on rotating shifts since the strike began at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

Neither the union nor the administration appears willing to budge.

"What's next is we continue to strike until we come to a fair agreement," said union president Randy Marcum. "We'll hold out as long as we can. It's going to come down to compassion. I hope (President) James Garland, (finance vice president) Richard Norman and the board of trustees will have compassion on these people."

The administration's message was just as unbending.

"We have given our best offer," Garland said, adding that the ball is in the union's court. "I guess we wait it out and hope the union reconsiders its decision."

Union leadership says some workers support families on as little as $7.73 an hour, but university officials say most union members earn $9 to $9.99 an hour. Saying that Miami offers the lowest pay of any Ohio college while having the highest public university tuition rate in the state, union leaders have been pushing for what they call a living wage.

The most recent contract between the union and Miami expired on Aug. 15.

While school officials say they expect the strike to have little effect on classes and other university operations, there has been some impact.

The Miami vs. University of Cincinnati football game today won't be nationally televised, as had been planned. School officials canceled it before the union vote over worries that television technicians wouldn't cross the picket lines if Miami workers chose to strike.

Students say they feel the tension, too.

"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."

A handful of students joined striking union members at key spots across campus Friday, some even collecting cash to help pay bills for workers not receiving a paycheck.

"We're starting to collect food now, too," said Marcum, who has been camping out in front of the administration building with other employees. "And we're collecting money for electric bills and rent. That way you don't get kicked out of your apartment."

Even though the union rejected the university's contract offer, which included, among other things, a 4.25 percent raise, school officials announced earlier this month that the pay increase would be implemented. The bump, which affects about 860 hourly workers represented by the union, will be retroactive to June 21, 2003.

School officials say about 60 percent of housing and dining staff reported to their shifts as scheduled despite the work stoppage. The percent was about 66 in physical facilities. The university has about 7,000 students living on campus, serves an average of 21,000 meals a day and has already hired 100 replacements.

"It's business as usual here at Miami," Norman said. "While one does see pickets at various locations on campus, most employees in the bargaining unit are continuing to work. I'd characterize any inconveniences caused by the strike as minimal."

Michael Dillon, a freshman from West Alexandria, Ohio, works as a student dining hall employee.

"It's made the dining halls a mess," he said. "At breakfast they didn't have hash browns and a couple of other foods they usually have. And all the food has been served on a mix of paper or Styrofoam. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's out of the ordinary."

Garland contends that the university's primary responsibility is to provide essential services to students.

"If we need more replacement people, we will hire them," he said. "It's going to cost us some money, I will say that, in overtime wages and additional costs for campus security. But we're not expecting any problems at all. There may be some inconveniences, but they look minor."

Garland also said he and his cabinet would decide within a few days whether the university will continue extending health benefits to striking workers.

By the end of the first day, rumors swirled about how the strike might end. One was that Ohio Gov. Bob Taft planned to step in, but that didn't turn out to be true.


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