The vast majority of striking university AFSCME workers march up the pay scale year by year, 2 percent at a time. The so-called step increases are a part of the contract that is separate from the 2.25 percent raise the university last offered most of the employees.
Striking union member Tricia Torrey, an administrative assistant in the University of Minnesota Law School, says the step increases boost pay on the theory that workers are more productive the longer they're in a job.
"The step increases we get, for example, are meant to reward us for staying here and knowing our jobs and becoming proficient," says Torrey. "A lot of employees participate in workshops where you can improve your skills at work, and that should be acknowledged as well."
The union says steps should remain distinct from raises designed to offset the rising cost of living.
“The step increases we get are meant to reward us for staying here and knowing our jobs and becoming proficient.”Striking union member Tricia Torrey
The university argues, however, the wage increases should all be seen as one -- and rather than being automatic, the step increases should be negotiated.
Rick Ross, a labor law attorney with Fredrikson and Byron, agrees with that position, saying raises put more money in workers' pockets no matter how they're categorized.
"It's the cumulative impact. I think the union's argument is that in the past they have negotiated the step increase, and that shouldn't be considered in future negotiations," says Ross. "From the employer's perspective, however, you look at the big picture. How much is the overall cost of the wage increase, the benefit increase going to be?"
In this case, each percent increase, whether it's for a step or an inflation adjustment, costs the university about $1.1 million.
University officials argue the step increases are real money going into the workers' pockets, and the difference from an inflation adjustment is merely semantic.
But that argument is new territory for the university, which honors the step increases for other unions on campus, most recently a Teamsters contract that boosts pay more than 3 percent a year on top of step raises.
The idea of combining cost of living and step raises is, in fact, a departure for Minnesota public employees in general.
Wayne Simoneau was the state's lead labor negotiator during the Arne Carlson and Jesse Ventura administrations. Before that he was a negotiator for the Teamsters union. He says the state always keeps the two separate.
"The employer may want to argue that, but the cost of living increase is a reward for the work you do, the impact that inflation has had, longevity -- responding to longevity of employment with that employer ... you can mold in a bunch of factors," says Simoneau. "Whereas step increases are based on the time it takes to learn and become an expert in that position."
Simoneau says the state's position relied partly on how the contracts were negotiated historically, but it also helped with some strategic objectives.
More than 70 percent of AFSCME union members voted to reject the university's last contract wage offer. University officials maintain two-thirds of the members are crossing the picket line, and while there are disruptions, they are mostly minor.
AFSCME clerical worker Carol Ford doesn't put much stock in either side's arguments about step increases. But she says the university's offer is good enough for her.
Ford walked off the job at the university's Morris Campus on the first day of the strike. But she crossed the line the next day and is back at work.
"The one thing I know is there is the deal that's been offered. And I don't think it's that bad, especially where I live," says Ford. "Out where I live, our workers on the campus have some of the best jobs in the area."
Ford says it's not an easy decision to be a "scab," as she readily calls herself. But she has lost faith in the union leadership and says the financial concerns aren't as pressing outside the Twin Cities.
"I have to go with my gut instinct on this. Both sides try to play the numbers to their own advantage," Ford says. "They tell you what they want to tell you, to present their side in the best way they can, which is not surprising. But it can also be misleading."
In the end, the university strike's conclusion may be influenced less by how well each side's arguments are presented, and more on how the issue plays in the grocery stores and auto repair shops around the state.
Both sides say no talks are pending.