Marissa Bremer-Roark, a building and grounds worker at the University of Minnesota, leads her fellow workers in a chant calling for higher wages on Aug. 30, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/minnesotadigest.com.
University of Minnesota students and parents arriving on campus for move-in day on Tuesday were met by a picket line of custodians, dining staff, mechanics and groundskeepers chanting against the university’s “poverty wages.”
The workers held the informational picket as negotiations have stalled between the university and Teamsters Local 320, which represents 1,500 U of M workers across the state.
“I can’t afford to pay my bills,” Marissa Bremer-Roark, a building and grounds worker, said in an interview.
Bremer-Roark has worked at the university for 17 years and earns $22.56 an hour to help support herself and two children.
Her message to students? “We can’t keep living like this in order to serve you.”
The workers’ action comes amid a national surge in labor activism as workers seek significant pay increases after months of soaring inflation. University workers point to rising tuition costs for students, which have outpaced inflation for decades, even as their own wages have stagnated.
“The university is doing really well, so there’s no reason why they can’t pay us living wages,” said Niki Chistopher, a dining services worker.
A recent survey of service workers at the university found that 61% do not have enough money to pay for basic expenses, 44% have put off paying bills to buy groceries in the last year and 8% have experienced homelessness while working for the university.
After years of modest raises, staff wages are 13% lower than the market rate, according to the university’s own analysis.
The union is seeking a 10% general wage increase and an additional 5% increase for long-term workers at the top of their pay scale like Bremer-Roark.
The union is also pushing to increase the minimum wage for its members to $20 an hour at the university. It’s currently $15 an hour, where it’s been stuck since 2017.
The union’s minimum wage is now the same as that for all workers at large companies in Minneapolis, under the city’s minimum wage law. Starting this fall, non-union university students will also make at least $15 an hour.
The university has offered a 3.85% wage increase for union workers over the next two years, which workers balked at.
“Not only is that a kick in the pants, but it’s a pay cut,” Bremer-Roark said.
The one-year labor contract covering the university’s service workers expired on June 30. After negotiations stalled, the two sides agreed to enter mediation with a meeting scheduled for Sept. 8. Based on the outcome of that meeting, the union will consider taking more extreme actions like a strike.
Jake Ricker, the university’s public relations director, said the university would continue to bargain in good faith.
“The University values the work of Teamsters 320 members and we hope to quickly reach an agreement that will allow us to attract, retain, and engage a diverse workforce,” Ricker wrote in an email.
Ricker added that the university was proud to offer “competitive wages and meaningful benefits.”
However, union leaders point to the university’s persistent staffing shortage as evidence that wages are too low.
“We have about 30% of the workers that are necessary to effectively run dining services,” said Teamsters Local 320 Secretary-Treasurer Brian Aldes. “The University of Minnesota can’t hire workers. They don’t pay enough.”
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