Union push may pause admin talks

University administrators can no longer alter faculty contracts without state approval.

by Brian Edwards

As some University of Minnesota faculty members make a push to unionize, state laws might complicate the process.
While the school’s faculty members and administration work with the state to compile lists of faculty members who are eligible for unionization, Minnesota’s Bureau of Mediation Services placed a status quo order on the University. 
The order prevents the University from altering anything related to the terms and conditions of an instructor’s employment, said Kathy Brown, vice president for the University’s Office of Human Resources at a University Senate Faculty Consultative Committee meeting last month. 
In an email sent to department chairs and administrators on Feb. 3, Lisa Bachman, a human resources director, said practices around faculty hiring, retention, sabbaticals and single-semester leaves of absence “may continue.”
Until mediation is finished, tenure, merit-based raises, conference travel and a variety of other discussions between faculty and administration might not be allowed to carry on without the approval of the BMS, Brown said at the FCC meeting.
Discussions around the Regents Scholarship Program and parental leave policies may need to be put on hold as well, she said.
The law school and six health sciences programs are exempt from the stays because they voted to be excluded from the union, Brown said at the FCC meeting. 
Multiple faculty members who support the union sent a letter last week to the BMS, asking the commissioner to redefine the status quo order placed on the University. They asked that BMS allow the discussion of faculty contracts to continue during the unionization process.
A University spokesperson said in an emailed statement that the school has yet to hear from BMS about the letter.
Meredith Gill, a senior lecturer in cultural studies and comparative literature, said she supports unionization. 
She said the conversation around faculty benefits and contract terms should continue because they are regular parts of University business. Gill said some faculty members believe the University is deliberately slowing down the process.
The status quo order comes at an important time for many faculty members as they look to negotiate pay increases, she said.
“This is the time of year that other institutions will be giving counter-offers,” Gill said. “That’s frequently how you get a raise.”
There is no defined list of programs or items that should be delayed before the unionization effort plays out, Brown said at the FCC meeting. Each issue that arises must be handled on a case-by-case basis.
If the state rules against allowing faculty to discuss benefits with the University, the delay could last as late as next fall semester, when the school-wide vote might occur.
Brown said at the meeting the school would like to avoid holding a vote for unionization in the summer, because many faculty members are not on campus. This makes a spring or fall vote preferable, she said.
Janet Johnson, labor mediation manager at the BMS, said the two groups — the University and faculty members — have until Feb. 4 to submit their lists of prospective union-eligible faculty. The lists will also include possible dates for pre-trial hearings and a hearing.
The BMS will examine the two groups’ lists to find any differences between the two, she said, adding that discussions about unionization won’t occur until the two groups’ eligibility lists match.
“What we do in a pre-hearing is try to narrow down the issues that go to a full hearing,” Johnson said, “so we don’t get bogged down.”
It is possible that the BMS will hold multiple pre-hearing mediations and some discrepancies could be resolved between the two groups’ lists, she said. 
If the groups still can’t come to an agreement, Johnson said, a hearing will be held where the two sides will question witnesses and present evidence. 
If both lists match on Feb. 4, the faculty members can immediately hold an election, she said, but the likelihood of that is slim.
The length of time for mediation depends on the amount of discrepancies between the groups and the size of their lists, Johnson said. 
“Because the University is so large, we may give them more time,” she said.
While the process moves forward, some faculty members are worried that discussions with the school about terms of employment will come to a halt, said Mark Borrello, an associate professor in the University’s College of Biological Sciences, who supports unionization.
“I don’t think that is what the labor laws are there for,” he said.