Opinion: We need a labor regent on the board

With regent elections around the corner, it’s about time the board has a regent who fights for the rank-and-file employees at the University.

by Cal Mergendahl

As the selection process for the next Board of Regents kicks off, there’s been no shortage of scrutiny on the process – and on the candidates themselves. A number of notable names have thrown their hat into the ring – incumbents such as Ken Powell and Tadd Johnson as well as law professor and Richard Painter, USG President Flora Yang and former Regent Michael Hsu, who lost reelection in 2021.

The board has been the topic of much conversation lately. Remarks made at the October meeting by Regent Steve Sviggum suggesting the possibility that the University’s Morris campus has become “too diverse” drew widespread condemnation from students, staff and community members alike. After an attempt at reconciliation with students at Morris went awry, student leaders systemwide issued a call for Sviggum’s resignation from the board. This joins a long list of newsworthy moments for the board over the recent past – President Gabel’s pay raise, the cutting of three athletics programs, recent tuition hikes – that have not exactly seen the Board portrayed in a good light.

Although it hasn’t been a topic associated with the board, the University’s dismal labor relations have also garnered headlines. Teamsters Local 320, the labor union representing food service, facilities and landcare employees at the University, accused the University of failing to negotiate in good faith and threatened a strike. The administration tried and failed to call the Teamsters’ bluff; a strike vote passed in October with a whopping 93% in favor, causing the University’s negotiators to cave just days before the potential walkout. The University’s AFSCME chapters, representing clerical workers and nurses, were also able to force significant concessions after the Teamsters strike threat.

Rather than indicating the University is serious about negotiating with labor, these events indicate precisely the opposite. Teamsters employees reported struggling to make ends meet, having to choose between food and medication and even homelessness. This was not considered sufficiently compelling for the University to address; it took the threat of thousands of workers walking off the job for the University to consider meeting their workers’ needs. Moreover, the consequences of this repeated and systematic disinterest in the wellbeing of key rank-and-file employees has not been limited to the workers themselves; the failure to effectively hire and retain staff – a consequence of poor pay and poor treatment – has had direct impacts on the University’s ability to provide basic and fundamental services to students, as exemplified by the dining services refund in response to lacking enough dining workers to keep dining facilities operating at full capacity.

The board did not directly encourage and endorse these actions, but the Regents’ failure to hold the administration accountable to the needs of workers has created an environment where these sorts of standoffs are considered acceptable. When the 2022-23 budget was unveiled to the board – in spite of rigorous criticism from University workers – Sviggum hailed it as a “pretty good balance.” The board ultimately approved the budget 11-1, and the only holdout, Darrin Rosha, made it clear his objections were rooted in the budget’s tuition hikes, not its failure to address worker concerns.

All this speaks loudly and clearly: the board needs representation not just from lawyers, doctors and executives, but from labor. A legislative proposal that would have encouraged the University to reserve a seat on the board for the University’s union-represented labor force died last spring, but that it made it as far as it did was remarkable. It’s unclear whether the new legislature will pick back up on the reforms it had in the works last session, but it’s certainly an option that could be in the works.

In the meantime, there is plenty of opportunity for the RCAC and the Legislature to appoint candidates more in tune with the realities of life in the rank and file. Mary Turner, the president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, and Robyn Gulley, a West St. Paul labor activist and city councilor, have both advanced to the RCAC’s interview period, leaving the path through the Legislature and into the boardroom open. Both come from working-class backgrounds, giving a perspective that would no doubt influence their perspective on issues of tuition and affordability as well.

The events of this past year have demonstrated the administration needs to rethink its approach toward its rank-and-file employees. Putting labor-friendly people on the Board is an essential part of making that happen.

 

Cal Mergendahl is a graduate student and former student representative to the Board of Regents.