See more of the story

About 1,500 janitors and food prep and other service workers at the University of Minnesota are taking a strike vote this week.

The employees, many of whom are Black, East African or immigrants, are requesting wages of $20 an hour and say they cannot adequately feed or house themselves or their families on their current pay.

Tensions over the pay, short staffing and alleged discrimination have been brewing since June 30, when the workers' last labor contract expired.

On Monday, their union, Teamsters Local 320, sued the U and its Board of Regents in Hennepin County District Court for allegedly violating the Public Employment Labor Relations Act.

The lawsuit accused school officials of monitoring employees while they picketed, taking down names and using other means to intimidate and coerce them, the lawsuit said.

Employees and university officials have been in mediation talks for weeks. More meetings are scheduled for Oct. 6 and Oct. 7. One month ago, employees picketed in front of Centennial Hall in Minneapolis as students moved into their dorms.

"The university is certainly committed to reaching a settlement agreement as part of mediation," university spokesman Jake Ricker said.

In a statement, he added: "We continue to look for opportunities to collaborate with our union partners and resume mediation in order to reach a solution for Teamsters members before a strike occurs. In the meantime, we are making contingency plans to ensure continuity of operations."

The Teamsters work touches the lives of 67,000 students and 26,000 university workers, so the possibility of a strike is undoubtedly unsettling, especially as the school year is just beginning.

Union members won a 2.25% wage increase in February 2020 that extended retroactively to September 2019. Workers at the time agreed to the labor contract, but several still expressed disappointment over wages and a lack of support for stronger antidiscrimination measures built into the contract.

Union voting runs through Oct. 7 for the 1,500 food preparers, custodians, gardeners, research-animal caretakers, truck drivers and maintenance workers. The union covers all five university campuses in the Twin Cities, Duluth, Crookston, Morris and Rochester.

The university's labor woes come as union activism is rising in Minnesota.

Earlier this month, nearly 15,000 hospital nurses at 15 hospitals in the Twin Cities and Duluth went on strike amid complaints about pay, short staffing and burnout.

On Monday, 400 mental health workers at M Health Fairview and Allina Health announced a three-day strike that will begin Oct. 3. Those workers belong to belong to the Service Employees International Union.

On Tuesday, a majority of 300 FirstService Residential employees voted to strike starting Oct. 11 unless demands are met to end alleged harassment and to recognize their right to unionize. The doormen and maintenance workers take care of 30 condo and apartment buildings around the Twin Cities.

Recently, union activity has soared. Union membership across Minnesota reached a 14-year high with surges in organizing efforts led by hospital staffers; retail workers at Starbucks, Half Price Books, Trader Joe's; and even workers at the Guthrie Theater, the Minnesota Historical Society and the video film crew for the Minnesota United FC soccer franchise at Allianz Field.

The number of Minnesota union members rose 4.5% from 2020 to 2021 to 416,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Chris Shields with the Minnesota AFL-CIO credits the recent uptick in union membership, picketing and organizing to the pandemic.

The upheaval from COVID-19 restrictions and fears put many things into perspective for workers about what was important in life, he said.

"Workers are sick of having to cobble together multiple jobs just to make ends meet while sacrificing precious time with families" under less-than-optimal conditions, Shields said. "They see organizing as a way to improve their workplaces and their lives."