U uses tuition, state funds to pay legal fees associated with faculty union push

The U has paid an outside law firm $500K as it battles faculty unionization supporters in court.

Kacey Holmen and Jackie Renzetti

The University of Minnesota has spent more than $500,000 of state taxpayer and tuition money in legal fees as it battles faculty unionization advocates in court.

Records obtained by the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group through a public records request show the money — nearly $515,000 from a University fund of tuition and state money — was used to hire the law firm Fredrikson & Byron as the school clashed with faculty union supporters to determine what faculty positions could be included in the union vote.

While the University defended the expenses as necessary to defeat an “unprecedented request to create a bargaining unit that does not conform to state law,” supporters of a faculty union say the money was used by the University to hire the law firm to try and thwart the unionization effort.

“It is a very poor use of money that students use for an education,” said Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, who chairs the House Higher Education Policy and Finance committee. “Legal fees should be a separate fund.”

The five invoices date back to March and go through mid-July. Fredrikson & Byron is still working with the University, said University spokesman Evan Lapiska.

The University, on a school website, has said it has used outside legal counsel.

“I’m sure no one in the legislature … intended for over half a million taxpayer dollars we appropriated to the University of Minnesota’s general fund to be used for attorney’s fees fighting the University’s own employees in exercising their right to form a union,” said Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis in a Wednesday MPIRG press release. “[The University] … ought to be spending their limited taxpayer dollars on what should be their top priority: educating their students.”

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) filed for a faculty election in January with the Bureau of Mediation Services. Since then, the University has been involved in a legal battle over which types of faculty positions, such as non-tenured faculty, can be included in the union vote.

“I think all of us were a little dismayed, perhaps not completely surprised … that the University administration was partisan in this endeavor since their statements to us led most of the University community to believe that they are neutral in this,” said cultural studies and comparative literature professor Tim Brennan.

Acquiring outside legal counsel for union organizing procedures is common for universities or organizations where there’s been a push to unionize, said John Budd, a Carlson School of Management professor who specializes in labor studies.

Still, the University’s motion filed in state court in March challenging a state decision to hold hearings about the classification of non-tenured faculty was unusual, Budd said.

“Essentially, the University is trying to say their expertise is better than the experts’ expertise,” Budd told the Minnesota Daily at the time of the lawsuit.

Once the Bureau of Mediation Services decides who can vote, SEIU plans to move forward with the election, Brennan said.

“These one-time costs are necessary for the University to fully address the complex legal and practical issues involved in this issue, which will have great effect on the University’s faculty, staff, and students far into the future,” the University’s Office of the General Counsel said in an emailed statement.