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Editorial: President Ettinger: For the good of the University, end opposition to PELRA reform

The administration must stop opposing its employees’ basic labor rights.
Image by Sarah Mai

A bill before the Minnesota Legislature would remove outdated legal stipulations that prevent over 23,000 University of Minnesota employees from exercising their basic right to form a union.

Already, more than 2,000 University employees and students have signed a petition supporting the bill. Yet Interim President Jeffrey Ettinger and other administrators have spent considerable time and energy seeking to delay or stop its passage.

Their position threatens to alienate the administration from University employees and unions, and from a legislature and governor that have committed themselves to protecting workers’ rights.

The state’s current Public Employment Labor Relations Act (PELRA) effectively prevents about two-thirds of University employees from exercising their right to unionize. Long ago, the law set out pre-defined bargaining units for possible unions that do not correspond to the realities of the University workforce.

For example, a Twin Cities lecturer who wanted to form a union would have to organize IT professionals in Morris, HR staff in Rochester and numerous others. Similarly, these outstate staff would have to organize over a thousand Twin Cities educators to win collective bargaining. 

Mandated units are highly unusual in labor law, which typically allows employees to determine the make-up of their own unions. This bill would remove these relics and apply PELRA’s standard rules for unionization. It would also fix PELRA’s perplexing denial of labor rights to undergraduate students who receive financial aid and close loopholes that deny union eligibility to workers classified as fellows. 

If Minnesota will, as Gov. Tim Walz (DFL) said in his last State of the State address, “always be a labor state,” then employees at its internationally-renowned university must have fair rules for unionization. It’s no wonder the bill to reform PELRA has nearly twenty legislative co-sponsors, including the chairs of the Senate Higher Education and Labor committees.

Regrettably, University administration has responded by fighting to preserve these union-busting barriers. Despite acknowledging that changes to PELRA are overdue and relaying false promises of neutrality to lawmakers, our leaders’ actions at the capitol speak louder than their words.

From oppositional testimony and written statements to inflated estimates of the bill’s fiscal impact, the administration has so far indicated it does not want this measure to pass. Rep. Joe McDonald (R) of the House Labor Committee put the matter plainly, “I believe Mr. Ettinger stated that they were not in favor of the bill.”

DFL lawmakers have also noted the opposition. At a hearing of the Senate State and Local Government and Veterans’ Committee, Sen. Erin Maye Quade (DFL) remarked: “I was really, really disheartened by [Ettinger’s] comments. ‘We regularly receive feedback from employees’ is what people who hate unions say. That is what corporations say when [arguing] ‘you don’t need a union.’” 

Sen. Jen McEwen (DFL) called out the administration’s “slow-walking” of the bill while noting that the need for PELRA reform has been common knowledge for years. “This idea that the U hasn’t known that this is coming…frankly, that is not true at best and disingenuous at worst,” McEwen explained to the Senate State and Local Government and Veterans’ Affairs committee.

McEwen hasn’t been alone in questioning these stall tactics. Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten (DFL) challenged the administration’s claim that it could not support the bill without consulting UMN shared governance bodies.

When Ettinger admitted in front of the Senate Higher Education Committee that “decisions aren’t made by the shared governance structure,” Verbeten explained that it was essential “for workers to make the decision about whether or not they need a union.”

The administration has also attempted to attach a price tag to what is clearly a policy bill, claiming it would be put under financial strain if standard unionization rules were to apply. This argument has drawn the ire of key legislators. House Labor Committee Chair Rep. Michael Nelson (DFL) warned the University against this “death by fiscal note” tactic, in which high costs are affixed to a bill to obstruct its passage. 

McEwen echoed this frustration, noting that while the University apparently can’t fund its employees’ basic labor rights it has spent millions in recent years (including tuition and state funding) hiring anti-union law firms and outside consultants to fight union drives and maintain the PELRA status quo.

As leaders and members of campus unions and organizations, we are concerned the administration will damage crucial relationships at the Capitol if it continues to prop up statutes that prevent its own employees from unionizing. As many shared governance leaders recently noted, the University has fallen far short of its budgetary targets at the legislature this biennium. Acquiring a ‘union-buster’ label will only make matters worse.

Thankfully, there is still time to change course and stop opposing a long-overdue fix that has considerable legislative momentum and campus support.

We urge the administration to respect our voices and not place our University’s legislative relationships at risk.


Sumanth Gopinath, President, AAUP-UMTC

Heather Holcombe, Vice President, AAUP-UMTC

Max Vast, President, AFSCME Local 3800

Curt Swenson, Vice President and Business Agent, Teamsters Local 320

Ian Ringgenberg, P&A Employee

Sara Davis, President, Undergraduate Student Government Twin Cities Campus

Alex Provan, Bargaining Committee Member, UMN-GLU: UE Local 1105

Ash Smith, Undergraduate Student Worker

The UMN Labor Rights Coalition is a group of undergraduate and graduate students, contingent and tenure-stream faculty, graduate fellows and postdoctorates, professional students, medical residents, researchers and other staff and members of the University community advocating for workers at the University of Minnesota.

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  • Georgiana May
    Apr 15, 2024 at 3:35 pm

    Simply put, people have the right to organize as unions.

    Moreover, the Administrations’ protest that we have shared governance is disingenuous. While perhaps true in concept, it is certainly not a shared governance in practice. The Admin also likes to waive around their Engagement survey, but the survey neither allows faculty and staff to evaluate Admin, nor are resources provided to address problems that are identified in that survey.

    Shared governance and the engagement survey have done nothing to address the issues of salary and working conditions of faculty and staff over the past 20 years. The only option is to form unions and the Admin knows this very well because they used PELRA to block faculty unionization. They certainly do not want to see it changed.