The effort by University of Minnesota faculty to organize suffered a setback with a recent Court of Appeals ruling dividing the bargaining unit between contingent (non-tenure track) and tenure-line faculty. But the members of Minnesota Academics United will not be divided by the courts or the university administration.
On Sept. 5, the court overturned the state Bureau of Mediation Services’ decision to combine contingent and tenure-line faculty into one bargaining unit. The court found the Bureau did not have sufficient authority to make such this determination. Previously, the Bureau found that there is “strong evidence demonstrating significant community of interest” between the two faculty groups.
The Court of Appeals decision accepts the University’s argument that most contingent faculty should not be included in the faculty bargaining unit (under PELRA, Unit 8) because they do not hold positions with academic rank. Following the Court’s decision, contingent faculty have been pushed back into Unit 11, a group that contains everyone from athletic coaches to university administrators.
It is clear, on the face of it, that contingent faculty have more in common with tenure-line faculty than they do with administrators and coaches. Furthermore, there are a small number of contingent faculty – SEIU Local 284 estimates around 200 – who do have “academic rank” as “instructors” and “adjunct faculty,” and are thereby included (without dispute by the University of Minnesota) in Unit 8.
What is the difference between an “adjunct faculty” member and a “lecturer” – both contingent teaching positions – at the University of Minnesota? Apparently, the right to form a union with tenure-line faculty: “adjunct faculty” have that right, while “lecturers” do not. Since Unit 11 is a “catchall” unit – defined under state law as the unit for those who are left out of all the other units – nothing prevents the University from creating as many instructional job titles as it wants and assigning them to this unit, regardless of the job duties. Even tenure-line faculty should be concerned about this development.
I am a member of the Steering Committee of Minnesota Academics United. We issued the following statement last week in response to the ruling:
"We are disappointed that the Court of Appeals overruled the Bureau of Mediation Services. We believe that the Commissioner’s decision was the more accurate assessment of faculty labor on our campus, a decision reached based on a thorough and thoughtful process including meetings of the parties, lengthy hearings, and extensive legal arguments. We stand firm in our belief that contingent faculty and tenure-track faculty necessarily share a community of interest.
"The university administration’s position is driven by backwards priorities that value administrative prerogatives over intellectual excellence and student learning. The University’s position is a deliberate misinterpretation of what campus faculty do, explicitly intended to divide us in order to limit our power to protect and improve our working conditions, which are also our students’ learning conditions.
"Further, it relies on a fundamental disavowal of the value of our contingent colleagues’ teaching, research and service to our campus community. This approach to university education is anachronistic and unacceptable. In spite of this unfavorable outcome in the Court of Appeals, we will continue to advocate for our students and colleagues through a variety of channels including a possible appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court."
The University’s rationale for dividing the two faculty groups is rooted in the administration’s devaluation of the work and qualifications of contingent faculty.
The University, in its brief to the Court of Appeals asking them to overturn the Bureau’s decision, contends that tenure-line faculty and contingent faculty are not a community of interest because tenure-line faculty “must hold a different level of qualification with respect to research achievement and graduate student instruction.”
This is the crux of their argument for sorting contingent and tenure-line faculty into separate bargaining units: tenure-line faculty are more highly qualified as instructors and researchers than contingent faculty, and therefore do not share a community of interest. This contention is infuriating to contingent faculty and tenure-line faculty alike, who see each other as peers, and who recognize that the root of the adjunct/tenure-line distinction in employment is not a difference in the quality of the employees, but the University’s increasing preference for – and reliance on – a cheaper, more contingent workforce.
Minnesota Academics United, an affiliate of SEIU Local 284, rejects the University’s distinction between the qualifications of contingent and tenure-line faculty. Last Friday, a large and varied group of contingent and tenure-line faculty met and unanimously decided to move forward with the unionization campaign as a united faculty. Faculty will not let the arbitrary distinctions imposed on them by the courts and the university administration divide them.
The ruling has surfaced the University’s antipathy for contingent faculty, already evident in the low rates of pay, the inconsistent access to benefits, and the semester-by-semester contracts most contingent faculty must bear. Faculty are also frustrated that the University continues to squander its resources – resources faculty are told are very limited due to cuts in the state budget – on legal challenges to every aspect of the faculty unionization campaign. The upside of the decision is that it has already energized organizing among contingent and tenure-line faculty, who are more determined than ever to form a united union for all faculty.
Amy Livingston is on the staff of the Labor Education Service, a unit in the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.
Workers are organizing through unions and other organizations to improve their lives. Union representation provides a voice on the job and the opportunity to improve wages, benefits and working conditions.