Breaking down the unionization push at the University of Minnesota

On Sept. 5 an appeals court struck a blow to faculty unionization efforts. Here’s what you need to know about that movement so far.

Kevin Beckman

A Minnesota Court of Appeals opinion released Tuesday said the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services lacked the authority to assign University of Minnesota teaching specialists, lecturers and faculty to the same bargaining unit. 

The decision, part of a long-running dispute over who can be part of a faculty union, is a win for University administrators, as some top officials were “disappointed” with the 2016 BMS decision to place almost all teaching staff in the same bargaining unit.

How the University got here

Service Employees International Union Local 284, the union seeking to represent University educators, launched unionization efforts in 2014. In January 2016, SEIU submitted a petition to BMS asking for an official union election.

BMS ruled to place almost all teaching staff at the University in the same bargaining unit in 2016. 

The University challenged the BMS ruling last fall. Arguing that lecturers and faculty belong to distinct bargaining categories under state law, the University objected that BMS did not have the authority to assign them to another unit. The University has also argued the BMS decision violates Minnesota law by adding four new employee categories previously classified in different units. 

In an interview with the Minnesota Daily last year, University President Eric Kaler said including certain faculty in a union vote constrains elements of flexibility, and that school administrators would prefer to deal with faculty “as individuals rather than as a group represented by a [union].” 

How the system works in Minnesota 

In Minnesota, public employers, their employees and labor organizations that represent these employees are regulated by the Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act. PELRA gives guidelines and outlines steps about how employees can elect bargaining representatives to represent their needs.

According to PELRA, in order for University employees to elect SEIU to represent the group’s interests, 30 percent of employees in the unit must sign a petition to BMS, which then goes to a vote. 

Once approved, a vote follows with a simple majority needed to certify the representation. However, the vote includes the total number of employees, meaning low turnout can impact the vote, according to the University’s representation election process website.

From a labor organizing standpoint, workers have more influence and represent a stronger voice when they are united in negotiations, said Aaron Sojourner, a University professor specializing in labor economics.

“The most important motivation is to have a stronger voice in the workplace and to try to assert more influence into how the University is structured,” he said. 

Bargaining units at the University 

Under PELRA, University of Minnesota employees are split up into 13 distinct bargaining units — groups that have specific roles within the University. For example, one unit includes employees with the rank of professor, associate professor, assistant professor, research associate, research instructor or research fellow. Another unit consists of all academic professional and administrative staff positions — contingent staff with short-term contracts.

Faculty respond

Jerry Cohen, professor of horticultural science at the University — who has been involved with unionization efforts — said the University has increasingly relied on contingent faculty, or employees on short-term contracts, and that those faculty members have been “continually abused”. 

“Graduate students spend more time in front of contingent faculty than tenured professors,” Cohen said. “It’s wrong-headed and it hurts people.” 

Some instructors at the University have been contingent faculty for 35 years but still don’t have the right to collectively bargain alongside tenured professors, Cohen said. 

He said the University’s stance on the unionization efforts may have been a correct interpretation of the legislation at the time it was passed, but contingent faculty’s involvement in education at the University has evolved to become more encompassing since then. 

“This is hugely detrimental to the University community,” Cohen said. 

Jonathan Du contributed reporting to this story.