Court decision might mean the end for University unionization, some say

The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled last week that adjunct faculty and tenured faculty can’t be part of the same bargaining unit.

by Jonathan Du

The long-running University of Minnesota faculty unionization effort hit a roadblock last week when a Minnesota court ruled tenure-track and nontenure-track faculty can’t join the same bargaining unit.

While some University officials are pleased with the Minnesota Court of Appeals decision, other employees worry it could mean the end for the University adjunct’s unionization push. The union vying to represent University educators hasn’t ruled out a Minnesota Supreme Court appeal. 

The opinion last week came in response to a 2016 University appeal challenging a Bureau of Mediation Services decision to place several classes of University educators – who belong to distinct categories under state law – in one bargaining unit. 

In a 19-page opinion, the court ruled that BMS lacked the authority to assign adjunct faculty – like teaching specialists and lecturers – to the same bargaining unit as tenured and tenure-track faculty, as they belong to distinct categories under Minnesota law. 

Service Employees International Union Local 284, the union seeking to represent University educators, petitioned BMS in 2016 to put these educators in one bargaining unit. They argued that adjuncts’ roles at the Twin Cities campus had changed enough since the law governing Minnesota labor organization was passed. 

The court ruled adjunct faculty’s roles and responsibilities haven’t changed significantly and don’t require a new labor unit. 

“From a labor organizing standpoint, you are stronger when you represent [and] when you organize all the people who are doing the work, and you can present a united front in negotiations,” said University professor Aaron Sojourner, who specializes in labor economics.

The decision was a victory for University officials.

“We are pleased with the Court of Appeals decision because it is consistent with the state law’s definition of our faculty bargaining unit,” said Kathy Brown, vice president of human resources at the University, in a statement.

In an email to the Labor and Employment Relations Association, University professor John Budd said he thinks the ruling could mark the end of adjunct faculty’s unionization efforts at the University.

“[Union organizers] will need to get a majority of accountants, cartographers, athletic trainers and workers from over 300 other job titles to all vote for a combined union,” he said in the email. “Maybe that’s why the University of Minnesota has spent 18 months trying to get this ruling.”

The steering committee of the Minnesota Academics United, an organization advocating for University faculty unionization, said they are disappointed with the Court of Appeals decision and considering further action, potentially a Minnesota Supreme Court appeal. 

“The University administration’s efforts to fight against the faculty coming together to improve working and teaching conditions fly in the face of its stated mission to provide a quality undergraduate education for its students,” the statement said.

Adjunct faculty at the University looked to unionization partly as a chance for increased job security, said Amy Livingston, adjunct faculty and a member of Minnesota Academics United’s steering committee. 

“Because they pay [adjunct faculty] less, it’s like hiring your worker on the street corner. You can hire them when you need them, and you can let them go when you don’t,” said Jerry Cohen, a tenured professor of Horticulture Sciences at the University who is supportive of unionization efforts.

SEIU first started urging university employees to unionize in the fall of 2014. 

Nearly two years later, SEIU filed to officially begin the unionization process.

Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that John Budd thought the court ruling could mean the end for the University’s unionization effort. He was referring specifically to the adjunct faculty unionization effort.