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This article was submitted on behalf of several University of Minnesota faculty members. Their names are listed below.


As faculty members who support the right of all University of Minnesota employees to organize unions and pursue collective bargaining, we are heartened to see our colleagues' recent Star Tribune commentary covering two legislative bills introduced this session that, "in support of the U's workforce," remove union-busting obstacles in the law ("Collective bargaining at the U: Legislature should put money where its mouth is," April 3). However, we must correct one misperception in their piece: reform to the state's Public Employee Labor Relations Act (PELRA) is not merely "a nice gesture." Rather, it is an urgent necessity to allow workers at the university to access their collective bargaining rights.

The bills HF 4508 and SF 4597 propose much-needed and long overdue reforms to PELRA. Currently, a 1980 amendment to the law establishes mandated bargaining units for U employees who wish to pursue unionization. These woefully outdated units create arbitrary divisions between workers with shared interests, while lumping others into illogical and unwieldy groupings. Effectively, they bar over 23,000 U employees — about two-thirds of the university's workforce — from any realistic path to unionization. They are also highly unusual in labor law, which typically allows for bargaining units to be determined at the time of unionization.

The university's current PELRA bargaining units do not stand up to the test of common sense. For example, nontenured faculty are not in a unit with other faculty, but are packed into a unit with more than 5,000 workers who have no common basis for unionization, including IT professionals, HR staff and athletics personnel. A lecturer faculty member who wanted to form a union could not do so with fellow faculty workers but would need to recruit, for example, Director of Athletics Mark Coyle and other employees with radically disparate roles and job responsibilities.

Additionally, the PELRA amendments outright exclude certain groups from collective bargaining, including student workers receiving financial aid. Ironically, students with the greatest financial need have no recourse to union representation. As state Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, recently stated, "No one should be barred from having employment rights because of their parents' salaries."

Clearly, the inability of U workers to pursue unionization is an untenable situation in a state that values labor rights. In his State of the State address in March, Gov. Tim Walz noted that his administration had "expanded the right to organize — because Minnesota will always be a labor state." Without PELRA reform, however, the majority of employees at the state's largest and flagship public university do not have realistic access to this right.

U employees have long been aware of this reality. In 2016, faculty workers seeking to unionize asked the state Bureau of Mediation Services to place all teaching staff — lecturers, adjunct faculty and tenure track faculty — into one bargaining unit. The BMS ruled in the employees' favor, but university administration successfully appealed the decision, opposing this unionization effort and defending the present, mandated bargaining units. The administration thus made it clear that neither it nor the BMS had the standing to correct the PELRA problem, and that U workers would have to take the issue to the State Capitol. Which is what they have now done.

The Legislature and governor now have the chance, through a simple correction of the statute, to make it possible for U employees to pursue unionization if they choose to exercise that right. The government can show once again that Minnesota is a leader in standing up for workers and public education. Updating PELRA to provide U employees with the same rights as other workers is an urgent and effective step lawmakers can take to ensure that Minnesota is truly a labor state.

The authors, who each are University of Minnesota faculty members as well as members or officers of the American Association of University Professors, Twin Cities Chapter, are: Tracey Blasenheim, lecturer in political science; Heather Holcombe, lecturer in English; William P. Jones, professor of history, and Nathaniel Mills, associate professor of English.