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PELRA bargaining groups at U of M need reform


As an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011, I, like many Wisconsin emigrés, experienced significant upheaval around Wisconsin Act 10. Under the guise of a “Budget Repair Bill,” Act 10 is primarily known for removing the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Act 10 introduced me to the importance of public-sector labor unions. I was shocked 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 7, 2024, English Lecturer 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 the University of Minnesota could navigate systemic problems through their union.
“Seeking to improve this situation,” explains former Academic Advisor Ian Ringgenberg, “in 2015, staff and faculty 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 1980s, the Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act (PELRA) mandated 13 statutory bargaining units that University of Minnesota workers had to organize within if they chose to unionize. In normal labor unions, employees who choose to organize 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 in a union yet or not.
If this sounds confusing to you, you are not alone.
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.”
Dr. Holcombe adds, “My bargaining unit, unit 11, consists of 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. One group you won’t find in unit 11 is 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 Senate Higher Education Committee (SF 4597) and in the Minnesota 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 in deciding their 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."
Medical residents are another group specifically hindered by the statutory bargaining units. “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. We are here because the appropriate way to dispute these conditions through collective bargaining isn’t unattainable for us.”
In addition to this confounding patchwork of bargaining units, the current law removes collective bargaining rights from university workers who receive financial aid, participate in work-study programs, or are awarded fellowships. Denying collective bargaining rights to state workers because they have financial need is a regressive policy I have learned to expect from Scott Walker Republicans, not from an established Minnesota statute.
State Coordinator of the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), Shae Horning, recounts, “USG managed to increase the student minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2022, a fight that took over a decade, and it's 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, UMN VP of Human Resources Ken Horstman claimed credit for the $15 an hour student minimum wage, and said 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.
As this issue goes to print, legislators continue to weigh PELRA reform bills against the backdrop of a labor upsurge in the Twin Cities. Let us take a moment this Mayday to reflect on the right for workers to collectively bargain in a union configuration of their choice on our side of the St. Croix River.
Michael Wilson is an organizer at Twin Cities DSA, and resides in the Hiawatha neighborhood.


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