State ruling says tenure-track and contingent faculty can form one union

University administrators had fought union advocates to limit a faculty union to tenure-track faculty.

Layna Darling and Jessie Bekker

Contingent faculty members — positions like teaching specialists and lecturers — can be included in a faculty union at the University of Minnesota, the state Bureau of Mediation Services ruled Tuesday.

The ruling clears the way for a faculty union vote at the University. Although no date has been set, organizers say the vote could come as soon as this fall.

The bureau’s decision was praised by union supporters, who had battled the University in court since March. The University wanted to limit the union to tenure-track faculty, arguing that contingent faculty should be considered professional and administrative staff instead of instructional.

“Tenure-line and contingent faculty are forming a union together because we are all dedicated academics,” said Jerry Cohen, a horticultural science professor in a Minnesota Academics United Tuesday press release. “Contract faculty like Teaching Specialists and Lecturers teach many of the same classes, participate in faculty governance and engage in service and research. While we have different roles at the University, we are all responsible for teaching our students and making the U a great place to learn.”

The school successfully kept University Extension educators from joining the bargaining unit.

If passed, the union would include about 2,500 faculty members, making it one of the largest single-campus faculty unions in the nation, according to Tuesday’s press release. The union would join Service Employees International (SEIU) local 284.

The decision comes nine months after University faculty filed for an election to join SEIU. Since March, the University has spent about $515,000 for outside legal counsel as it clashed with unionization advocates in court.

University Vice President for Human Resources Kathryn Brown said in a statement Tuesday the BMS “mistakenly grouped” tenure-track faculty with professional and administrative employees.

The University has called the effort to group the two faculty types together an “unprecedented request to create a bargaining unit that does not conform to state law.”

“We are disappointed that the Bureau seeks to include the Twin Cities Lecturer and Teaching Specialist job classes in the Twin Cities Faculty bargaining unit,” Brown said in the emailed statement. “We are reviewing the Bureau’s decision with an eye to determining our next steps and will share additional information when it becomes available.”

The University and some faculty members have opposed the unionization effort.

“For my part, I do not support a faculty union,” said University President Eric Kaler in a July letter. “Labor unions have a proud and important part in our nation’s history and have brought great benefits to generations of workers, but I firmly believe our work as faculty members depends fundamentally on our autonomy as individuals executing our three-part mission of teaching, research and service. That autonomy, and the uniqueness of each college and each field of study, are at odds with unionization.”

In 1997, University faculty barely voted against forming a union.

“We are building this union together to strengthen the voice of faculty on our campus for ourselves and our students, and we are confident that we will win our vote,” said Jason Stahl, a lecturer in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development, in Minnesota Academic United’s Tuesday press release.