Saturday, September 16, 2017

Minnesota Legislature: Respect U of M Contingent Faculty By Letting Them Decide Whether or Not to Unionize

Whether a group of employees wants to form a union to represent them in collective bargaining is a decision that those employees should be entitled to make. Unfortunately, contingent faculty (non-tenure-track instructors, lecturers, and teaching specialists) at the University of Minnesota will likely not get to make that decision themselves. Rather, the Minnesota State Legislature effectively prevented them from being able to make this decision when it enacted an unnecessary provision in state law over 35 years ago. In the wake of a state appeals court ruling earlier this month upholding this strange legislative provision, it’s time for the legislature to correct its earlier mistake and repeal this provision.

Perhaps some background is needed. When some employees want to form a union, an appropriate bargaining unit needs to be defined in order to specify exactly what positions would be represented by a union if an organizing drive is successful. Standard practice is for the employees or their desired representative (a specific labor union) to initially propose this definition. If an employer objects and prefers a broader or narrower definition, then a neutral, expert governmental agency investigates and determines the exact definition of the appropriate bargaining unit based on input and evidence. This is exactly what happens in the U.S. private sector (with the National Labor Relations Board empowered by federal law to handle unit determination questions based on its judgement of which employees share a “community of interest”), and, as far as I can tell, in almost all public sector jurisdictions in the United States (for example, see South Dakota's Public Employment Labor Relations Act section 3-18-4 or Iowa's Public Employment Relations Act section 20.13).

When the Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act (PELRA) was first enacted in 1971, this standard practice was adopted by empowering the Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS) to determine appropriate bargaining units when a public sector employer objects to the workers’ proposed definition. For state agencies, the law contained a proviso that an appropriate bargaining unit should consist of “all the employees under the same appointing Authority” unless “professional, geographical or other considerations affecting employment relations clearly require” some other appropriate unit (section 179.74). As is common elsewhere, there were no special provisions for the University of Minnesota, school districts, or others covered by PELRA.

In 1980, however, the Minnesota State Legislature deviated from common practice by changing PELRA to specify 16 (now 17) state bargaining units and 12 (now 13) University of Minnesota bargaining units (see Minnesota Session Laws 1980 c 617 s 40) (in later years, court units were also specified). This has long puzzled me, especially because it runs contrary to standard practice, and it is likely rooted in a desire to impose operational stability or convenience by limiting the number of bargaining units that a state agency or the University of Minnesota has to deal with. But the effect is to impose an outdated occupational structure on contemporary realities and to deny employees their rights to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. This is clearly not the way to balance efficiency, equity, and voice—a principle that I have long advocated as the key objective of work-related public policy (also see this, and this).

Getting back to the plight of contingent faculty at the University of Minnesota, the way the process should have worked was for BMS to have had the discretion to use its expert judgement decide whether it was best to include contingent faculty with tenure-track faculty, or to define two separate units, based on input, hearings, and the facts of this particular situation at this particular time. But with the unit definitions pre-specified by state law, contingent faculty are not allowed to have their own unit, and the state appeals court ruled that they are not part of the tenure-track unit. So this ruling means that contingent faculty are included in a catch-all unit of all professional and administrative employees at the University of Minnesota. The diversity of this unit is hard to grasp. By one count, there are over 300 job titles in it, presumably many more than in 1980. By my reckoning, this will kill the contingent faculty union drive because  in order to unionize they'll need to get a majority of accountants, cartographers, athletic trainers, and numerous others to all vote for a single union, which is close to impossible. It strains credulity to think that this diversity (a) represents a community of interest for these employee groups and (b) serves anyone’s interests except the administration of the University of Minnesota because it makes unionization almost impossible (which might explain why the administration spent 18 months trying to get this ruling).  

The processes of labor relations work best when they are allowed to be dynamic and to adapt to changing situations by those directly involved. Collective bargaining has proven to be adaptable to many industries and occupations, and can handle economic, technological, and other changes when labor and management negotiators have the freedom to determine the scope and tenor of their negotiations. Similarly, determining appropriate bargaining units should be a flexible process in which a neutral, expert agency has the ability to adjust to changing trends based on input from the relevant parties, hearings, and evidence about the particular realities of each case. The world of work has changed significantly since 1980, and it’s silly to think that even a well-intentioned legislative intervention in 1980 is still the best approach today (exhibit A: the tremendous rise of contingent faculty at the University of Minnesota).

But there is an easy solution: simply repeal sections 179A.10 Subd. 2 (defining state units), 179A.101 Subd. 1 (defining court units), and 179A.11 Subd. 1 (defining University of Minnesota units). No language is needed to replace these unnecessary passages. In their absence, the authority to determine appropriate bargaining units on a case-by-case basis will revert back to BMS under sections 179A.04 Subd. 2 and 179A.09, and common sense practice found throughout the rest of the state and most of the country will be restored. And contingent faculty at the University of Minnesota, and perhaps other employee groups, too, will be able to act like the autonomous, dignified human beings that they are and make a decision whether to unionize or not.

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