23,000 UMN Workers Collective Bargaining Rights Hinge On PELRA Reform




A version of this article was originally published in the Nokomis Messenger.

As an undergraduate student on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus in 2011 I, like many Wisconsin emigres, experienced significant upheaval around Wisconsin Act 10. Under the guise of a “Budget Repair Bill”, Act 10 is primarily known for removing collective bargaining rights of public employees. Act 10 introduced me to the concept of labor unions and the importance of public sector collective bargaining.  It was a shock for me, however, to learn that basic collective bargaining rights for public employees at the University of Minnesota are also in a state of precarity.

At a Minnesota State Senate hearing on March 7th,  English Professor Heather Holcombe lamented “I hold a Ph.D. in my field, and last year I earned $38,000 as a full-time instructor. For most of my time at the U I have received no benefits of any kind. There are over 1,500 ‘contingent faculty’ like me at the U.”

Believing Minnesota to be a secure place for public employee collective bargaining, I assumed that faculty and staff at a public institution like the University of Minnesota would be able to navigate systemic problems like this through a union. “Seeking to improve this situation” explains Academic Advisor Ian Ringgenberg “in 2015 staff and faculty on campus who were organizing to address these and other concerns signed union cards with SEIU local 284. And that’s when I first had to learn about PELRA.”

In the 1980’s the Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act (PELRA) mandated 13 statutory bargaining units where University of Minnesota workers could organize if they chose to. In normal labor unions, employees who choose to organize into a union determine who is in their bargaining unit. Under the anomaly that is PELRA, workers are told, through a legislative mandate, who is in their bargaining unit regardless of whether they are organized in a union or not. If this sounds confusing to you, you are not alone. It is an understatement to say this structure puts the “bargaining unit” cart before the “unionizing” horse.

Mr. Riggenberg continues “Under the current system I’m categorized as a P&A [Professional and Administrative] employee with UMN head football coach P.J. Fleck but not with an entry-level advisor who may do nearly identical work to what I do.”

Miss Holcombe adds “my bargaining unit consists of more than 5,600 workers in no fewer than 199 job categories. To have a union I would need to organize thousands of HR, IT, Marketing, Research, and student services staff. I would also need to organize the director of athletics who makes over $1 million a year. One group you won’t find in unit 11 are the tenure track faculty who teach down the hall from me. We do the same work, yet we are prohibited from bargaining together.”

A bill has been introduced in the Minnesota State Senate Higher Education Committee (SF 4597) and in the Minnesota State House Labor and Industry Finance and Policy (HF 4508) that would amend the definition of “public employee” and modify the UMN employee bargaining units in PELRA to allow worker self-determination to decide their own bargaining units.  

“This bill is about fundamental labor rights,” author Senator Jen McEwen explains. “Over two thirds of the U of M workforce are trapped in catch all bargaining units that make unionization effectively impossible… As currently written, PELRA prevents over 23,000 faculty, staff, and student workers at the University of Minnesota from coming together with their coworkers to form unions”.

 “We are your doctors, and we need a voice” pleads Kaitlin McLean M.D. “We often push the boundaries of 80-hour work weeks, but I’m not here to debate the finer points of specific job protections. The reason we are here is because the appropriate way to dispute these conditions through collective bargaining is unattainable for us.”

This patchwork confounds workers like 3rd year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Sandra Shahriar, who describes “Under the current PELRA statute, my work during the summer as a research assistant is represented by my union, Graduate Labor Union UE Local 1105. However, during the academic year when I’m funded through fellowship, I go to work every day in the same lab with the same supervisor conducting the exact same work duties. The only difference is that the University and PELRA do not consider this to be employment. I am outside of the bargaining unit and do not have access to the hard-fought protections gained by our union.”

This is because the current law removes collective bargaining rights from University workers who receive financial aid, participate in work-study programs, or are awarded fellowships. This 40-year standing policy of denying collective bargaining rights to state workers because they have financial need is the kind of thing I would expect from Scott Walker Republicans in Wisconsin, not relatively progressive Minnesotans.

On this student labor equity issue, State Coordinator of the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), Shae Hornig, describes “Students have to turn to organizations like USG who managed to increase student wages to $15 an hour in 2022, a fight that took over a decade and is still less than minimum wage in Minneapolis. While USG’s purpose is to advocate on behalf of students, student workers should be allowed to advocate for themselves.”

In response, Ken Horstman, VP of Human Resources at UMN, claimed credit for the successful $15 an hour student minimum wage and said that they are undergoing a project to be more competitive with salaries and benefits. After an allusion to the potential future cost burden of doing more bargaining, he conceded that PELRA is due for review.

Just like public employees in my home state of Wisconsin, UMN workers deserve the same rights as other public sector employees to collectively bargain with their co-workers in a union configuration of their choice. In the coming weeks we will see legislators weigh these PELRA reform bills to the backdrop of a labor upsurge in the Twin Cities manifesting their rallying cry “When we fight, we win!”.

By Michael W