Union Leader Not Guilty—Judge Throws Out False Charges Against Phyllis Walker

by Brad Sigal


[This article, slightly edited here for Labor Standard, was first posted on the web site fightbacknews.org]

Minneapolis, MN—On Nov. 9, Phyllis Walker was cleared of any wrongdoing in a Hennepin County courtroom when the judge threw out the charges against her. Walker is president of AFSCME Local 3800, representing 1,600 clerical workers at the University of Minnesota. She had been wrongly charged with interfering with the arrests of nine University of Minnesota students who staged a sit-in on May 4, 2005, against the closing of the university’s General College, which admits the bulk of the Black, Latino, and first-generation immigrant students who get in to the university.

Walker saw a plainclothes cop kick and pepper-spray two students who were trying to observe the arrests. She then was interviewed on TV, where she denounced the police brutality she witnessed. This angered the university administration, which then apparently encouraged Hennepin County to pursue legal charges against her, as part of a broader campaign of harassment against Walker and the union.

The legal charges were filed over a month after the incident occurred, right as union contract negotiations were about to begin. When negotiations began, one of the university’s first proposals was to effectively take away Walker’s ability as president of the union to work half-time at her job and half-time doing union work. Management’s chief negotiator stated openly in negotiations that they wanted to take away her union leave because they didn’t like the fact that she was active in the movement to stop the closing of General College. The union’s negotiating committee successfully blocked this move by management.

Proposal to Close General College Sparks Anti-Racist Movement

University of Minnesota president Robert Bruininks’s proposal to close General College, which was passed by the Board of Regents in June 2005, could shut off the largest entry point into the university for oppressed-nationality and working-class urban students. It will also cause layoffs. The proposal to close General College generated a large anti-racist student movement to save equal access to education in Minnesota. AFSCME 3800 played an active role in the movement, seeing the proposal to close General College as a threat to educational access for working-class Minnesotans and a threat to clerical jobs.

Last spring, the pro-General College movement sprouted two mass organizations: the General College Truth Movement and the Equal Access Coalition, which continue the fight for equal access to education.

The Sit-In and Legal Charges

As last spring semester neared its end, and after a series of large rallies and events in support of General College, some students felt the need to take dramatic action before the student body left for the summer and before the Board of Regents vote on the issue, scheduled for June. So dozens of students did a sit-in in President Bruininks’s office, demanding that he meet with them to discuss the decision to close General College.

Instead of meeting with the students, Bruininks had them arrested—at 6:00 p.m. on the day of their sit-in. Hundreds rallied outside Morrill Hall in support of the students, and TV news cameras waited outside the entrance to Morrill Hall to film the arrests. But to avoid the cameras, the university administration devised a plan to drag the arrested students through a maze of underground parking garages, in an effort to avoid having images of the arrests appear on TV.

Some of the protesters outside Morrill Hall thought the cops might take the students through the underground tunnels and garages that connect most buildings at the University on Minnesota, so a few protesters went in to each nearby parking garage to see if the students were being taken out that way. Walker and three students went into the Northrop Garage, and encountered two police booking vans and a plainclothes man who said he was a police officer blocking access to the tunnel that leads to Morrill Hall.

The plainclothes man yelled at Walker and the students to get away, then started kicking and pepper-spraying the students. Fortunately for Walker, the whole incident was videotaped by another student, including footage of the cop kicking and pepper-spraying two students multiple times. That tape was played on TV news and was used as key evidence in Walker’s favor at the trial. The videotape showed the cop brutalizing students who were just standing there, and clearly showed that Walker did not interfere with the cop. Shortly after seeing the video footage, the judge threw out the trumped-up charges.

Charges against one of the students, who the cop had pepper-sprayed and kicked, were also thrown out in a separate trial. Five of the students who had outstanding charges from participating in the sit-in had their charges reduced to a bare minimum at their trial in September. Though the county pursued the legal charges, University of Minnesota Deputy General Counsel Bill Donohue sat with the prosecution in the students’ trial, underscoring the university administration’s role in these political prosecutions.