Union push met with skepticism

A large labor group’s efforts to unionize U faculty may face some hurdles at the school.

by Taylor Nachtigal

One of the country’s largest labor organizations’ efforts to unionize faculty at the University of Minnesota may need a clearer focus to make any headway at the school.

The Service Employees International Union Local 284 sent an email last week urging the University’s faculty to unionize, citing detrimental higher education trends plaguing instructors across the nation. But some faculty members say the outside push is unnecessary and wouldn’t effectively represent their needs.

“We’re not sure we need an organization representing us in this mix, as opposed to representing ourselves and our interests,” said computer science and engineering professor Joseph Konstan, who serves as the chair of the University Senate’s Faculty Affairs Committee. “I’m not convinced they have made a convincing argument to motivate enough faculty.”

If the push to unionize does garner support, Minnesota law requires 30 percent of eligible faculty to sign authorization cards with SEIU and file a petition with the state’s Bureau of Mediation Services in order to call for a campus-wide vote on the issue, said Josh Tilsen, the agency’s commissioner.

From there, the bureau would hold a vote. More than 50 percent of faculty members need to vote in favor of the union.

Carol Nieters, executive director for SEIU’s Local 284,  said it’s too early to determine which types of employees will be included in the union efforts. Currently, she said the organization is trying to gain support among all types of faculty, from adjuncts to full-time professors.

Nieters noted that there are also legal exclusions for some types of University faculty.

Part-time employees who work less than 14 hours each week could not be included, along with faculty in the Law School and the health sciences, said Fred Morrison, a University law professor.

In an email statement, the University said it would “continue to abide by the Minnesota Public Employer Labor Relations Act, which specifies University of Minnesota employee bargaining units.”

While details on who would be included aren’t yet hammered out, Nieters said a union would protect faculty members from issues in higher education like shrinking number of tenure-track positions, issues with securing academic freedom and problems surrounding rising tuition.

“Where the U of M is a phenomenal school, they are not immune to what is happening around the country in higher education,” Nieters said, adding that “protecting tenure is key.” 

Adjunct faculty accounted for nearly half of all higher education faculty last year, according to a January report by the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Although Nieters said the declining number of tenure-track faculty nationwide is a reason to unionize, some feel there’s a healthy balance between tenure-track faculty and adjuncts at the University.

“The University uses a small amount of adjuncts compared to other schools,” Konstan said.

According to University policy, colleges can’t appoint more than one-fourth of their teaching faculty to a position without tenure opportunity.

A late 1990s push to unionize came as tenure-track positions were “under threat,” Konstan said. That effort ended in a close vote in which faculty ultimately decided not to unionize. Current reasoning for a union falls short of the last push, Konstan said. 

“I don’t hear a galvanizing issue that we need to take a step this drastic with the risks associated with it,” he said.

Graduate students at the University have also made several efforts to unionize as recently as 2012, which was shot down with 62 percent voting “no.”

SEIU’s Adjunct Action tried to rally adjunct faculty members last spring, but its attempts to unionize them have so far been unsuccessful.

Konstan said the University’s shared governance system — the University Senate — has been an effective means of meeting faculty members’ needs on the Twin Cities campus, noting that unionized employees aren’t recognized in the senate.

“We’re part of the people who run this place,” he said. “We’re not just hired employees.”

He said some faculty members also worry that their pay and benefits would be on a strict merit-based pay scale if employees unionize.

“The strength of a university is based on recruiting top performers who are uninterested in being on a set scale,” Konstan said.

In the email statement, the University said it is “committed to creating a supportive work environment where all employees are respected and fairly compensated for their contributions.”

Though faculty unions at the Twin Cities campus haven’t seen success, unions currently represent three University system campuses — Crookston, Morris and Duluth. Certified in the late 1970s, the University of Minnesota-Duluth holds the longest-standing union in the system, according to the state Bureau of Mediation Services’ Tilsen.

Although efforts on other campuses have seen success, Konstan said a faculty union would need strong backing and a specific drive.

“You need to have a compelling reason [to unionize],” he said. “I don’t think SEIU has made clear what that reason is.”