Upset with the performance bonuses paid to top officials, unionized workers at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system are pressing its board of trustees to stop making such payments while employees suffer.
About 40 protesters, most of them union members with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, chanted and held signs Tuesday outside the Wells Fargo building in downtown St. Paul.
A few floors up at MnSCU headquarters, university trustees gathered for their first day of a two-day monthly meeting.
AFSCME represents about 4,000 of MnSCU's clerical workers, administrative assistants and maintenance workers.
What has the union members riled up is a $40,000 bonus for MnSCU Chancellor James McCormick that the board approved at its meeting last month. The bonus was in addition to his $360,000 annual base salary.
Carroll Partridge, an AFSCME union local president and a plant maintenance engineer at MnSCU's Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, noted that the chancellor's $40,000 bonus is $2,000 more than the average yearly salary of an AFSCME worker in the MnSCU system.
Partridge said the system should not give top earners such incentives when it has laid off 100 AFSCME workers at MnSCU campuses because of declining levels of state funding.
"That's wrong. You're giving pink slips here, your giving bonuses out over here," he said. "That's totally incorrect. You can't do that."
The chancellor's bonus has already been approved, but the protesters hope they can sway the board of trustees when it comes to bonuses that are usually paid to the system's chancellors, vice chancellors and college presidents.
Last year, MnSCU paid about $250,000 in bonuses for presidents and vice chancellors throughout the entire system in the fall.
Karen Foreman, an AFSCME union member and administrative assistant at Minnesota State University-Mankato, said even if the bonuses are a part of the executives' contracts, she hopes the board of trustees will consider forgoing the incentives.
"We're hoping that they will evaluate that there are better places to put the funds than bonuses for top administrators," Foreman said. "It's better to put that into staff who can serve students."
Bonuses for executives are commonplace at public colleges and universities across the country. But they've come under greater scrutiny from taxpayers and lawmakers as states face massive budget deficits.
In light of that, some college leaders have refused to take their performance bonuses, others have donated them to prop up scholarship funds.
MnSCU officials see bonuses as the best way to retain and reward top executives. The trustees don't think that should change, spokesperson Melinda Voss said.
"Even in these difficult times the board sees this as an important thing to do," she said.
Voss said the bonuses are given to executives who meet their performances goals. For a university president that could be increasing the number of students enrolling in math and science courses, or increasing the graduation rate of students.
"The presidents no longer receive across the board salary increases," Voss said. "Their compensation packages are based solely on performance, not longevity."
Voss said the MnSCU board of trustees is not expected to take up the issue of performance bonuses at its meeting this week.
But AFSCME union members are determined to make sure the board hears their concerns. They're expected to address the board on Wednesday and ask that the trustees don't pay bonuses to executives this year.