Workers Ask Ambassador Haarde, a UMN Alumnus, to Uphold Iceland’s Values
(WASHINGTON) — University of Minnesota employees represented by the Teamsters Union protested at the residence of Geir Haarde, Iceland’s ambassador to the U.S., Thursday night.
Ambassador Haarde is a University of Minnesota (UMN) alumnus, and hosted a holiday reception for Washington, D.C.-area UMN alumni last night. University of Minnesota employees traveled to Washington, D.C. for the event, where they educated UMN alumni about how their alma mater is treating university workers.
Outside the alumni reception, UMN and Washington, D.C.-area Teamsters held banners that read, “Stop Worker Abuse at University of Minnesota” and “Ambassador Haarde: Uphold Iceland’s Values.”
More than 1,500 service workers at UMN are represented by Teamsters Local 320 in Minneapolis.
They have been trying to negotiate a contract that makes up for increased costs of living, and that ends the university’s practice of reassigning workers to different jobs if they take more than two weeks of maternity leave or travel for more than two weeks to care for loved ones in other countries.
Many of these workers are women and immigrants.
“Many of these workers are not being paid a living wage that allows them to support their families,” said Brian Aldes, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 320. “UMN has a $2.1 billion endowment, and it pays its President, Eric Kaler, over $825,000 in total compensation each year. It’s inconceivable to me that UMN refuses to bring workers’ wages up to meet the current costs of living in Minnesota.”
The University of Minnesota shares a close relationship with the state-run University of Iceland. For more than 30 years, student, faculty and staff exchanges have occurred between the two schools.
The Icelandic community in Minnesota has long supported students from Iceland attending UMN.
Ambassador Haarde, who was previously Iceland’s prime minister from 2006-2009, received a master’s degree from UMN.
Iceland is a country known for its support of workers and workers’ rights. In addition to strong worker protections, Iceland also has some of the most robust policies in the world on equal pay and treatment for women, paid family leave and other gender equity issues. Drífa Snædal, General Secretary of the Federation of General and Special workers in Iceland (SGS) sent a letter to Ambassador Haarde encouraging him to stand in support of the UMN staff.
“No employer in Iceland would ever get away with how UMN is treating its lowest-paid workers,” said Curt Swenson, Vice President of Teamsters Local 320. “Ambassador Haarde should let UMN know that Icelanders expect UMN to uphold their values.”
Sixteen-year UMN employee Sara Parcells traveled from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. to speak with Ambassador Haarde inside the reception.
“I told the ambassador about how I’m a single mother of two kids,” Parcells said. “I told Mr. Haarde that my wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living. Even after 16 years of service, UMN doesn’t pay me enough for me to be able to afford Christmas presents for my kids. I told him how we live in a two-bedroom apartment because I can’t afford anything else, so I sleep in the living room because there’s no room for me in the small bedrooms. I told him that I deserve respect and a living wage. The ambassador said that he was sorry for my story, but that he still wasn’t going to take a position on talking to the university.”
Rhonda Andreen has worked as a gardener at UMN for 10 years, and also traveled to Washington to speak with Ambassador Haarde.
“I told the ambassador that I have to have a second job to pay my bills because I don’t make enough at the University of Minnesota,” Andreen said. “He listened, but he was hesitant to support us.”
“Some of UMN’s service workers are homeless because they can’t afford rent,” Aldes said. “These workers do not have home addresses and most don’t have bank accounts, yet UMN will not provide a central location for them pick up their paychecks in person. I was left almost speechless when UMN said that homeless workers should pay out of their own paychecks for P.O. boxes. That is just cruel.”
“The ambassador tried to tell us that he had no reason to be involved. We told the ambassador that as an alumnus, he has an obligation to get involved with what’s going on with the treatment of workers at the university,” said Tim Beaty, Director of Global Strategies for the Teamsters Union. “We reminded him that when he was at the university, people like Sara and Rhonda were the workers who cleaned the dormitories, who kept the campuses in good shape and who kept the heating running in the winter. These are the kinds of workers who helped him when he was on campus.”
Michael Filler, Director of the Teamsters Public Services Division, also attended the reception.
“Tonight sent a strong message to the university,” Filler said. “UMN’s mission as a publicly-funded institution is to provide educational, research, and public service benefits to students and to the entire state of Minnesota. UMN also claims that its guiding principles include treating people with dignity and respect. We told Ambassador Haarde that UMN is abusing workers in a way that Icelandic employers would never get away with.”