Eighth Circuit Hears Challenge to Minnesota College Union’s Powers

A professor at a Minnesota university argues that its union violates her free-speech rights by barring her from powerful committees because she is a vocal opponent of the union.

The James W. Miller Learning Resources Center at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn. (Photo by Xylem22 from Wikipedia Commons via Courthouse News)

(CN) — A federal appeals court heard arguments on Tuesday in a case hinging on whether prohibiting a nonunion professor from decision-making committees the union oversees violates her constitutional right to free speech criticizing the union.

Kathleen Uradnik, a tenured political science professor at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota, sued the Inter Faculty Organization, or IFO, in 2018, claiming the university union violated the First Amendment by not allowing her to participate in certain university committees because she refuses to join the union. This, she says, constitutes employment discrimination and unfairly disadvantages her based on her anti-union views despite the fact that she is a part of the bargaining unit it exclusively represents.

The IFO, certified in 1975 and representing almost 4,000 full-time and part-time employees, argued that Minnesota law and two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases related to union powers protects its internal democratic procedures and gives it the latitude make committee appointments, which are only given to IFO members.

In any case, the union says, Uradnik has not been forced to join the union, her speech has gone unabated and she has not faced any professional barriers due to not being a member of the committees, which make decisions on everything from faculty grants to student expulsions and curriculum changes.

The district court sided with the union, granted it summary judgment and denied Uradnik’s motion to amend her complaint as untimely. Uradnik appealed and the case landed in the Eighth Circuit, which has offices in St. Louis, Missouri, and St. Paul, Minnesota.

Arguing on Uradnik’s behalf at virtual oral arguments before a three-judge panel on Tuesday, Richard Raile of the BakerHostetler firm’s Washington office argued that since the union “does the government’s work,” his client is essentially being barred from a government job in the form of a committee appointment because she does not support the union controlling those appointments.

Raile argued the union “tilts the scales” for tenure and promotions toward union members and unlawfully grants state-allocated benefits and imposes burdens based on political association. The main question before the court, he said, is “whether these committees do the government’s work.” He argued they do, and therefore they cannot discriminate against Uradnik due to her politics.

Brendan Cummins, the IFO’s counsel with the Minneapolis-based Cummins & Cummins firm, argued plainly that Minnesota law and U.S. Supreme Court precedent holds that excluding nonunion faculty from things like university committees does not violate the First Amendment and protects the union’s meet-and-confer negotiation powers.

Regardless, the union is not doing government jobs, Cummins said, and it is under no obligation to bring an anti-union voice like Uradnik’s into the fold because “it makes no sense to have someone opposed to the majority representation speak on its behalf.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Kelly, a Barack Obama appointee, pushed Cummins to clarify his understanding of the difference between Uradnik’s two counts, which challenge the IFO’s status as the “exclusive representative” of bargaining unit members and the union’s policy of excluding nonunion members from committees. The district court did not reach the latter count and dismissed it as insufficiently pleaded.

Cummins said the counts were “almost identical” in their challenges to exclusive representation and that Uradnik waited inexcusably long to amend deficiencies in her second claim anyway after trying out a “test run” with the lower court.

Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Jacob Campion briefly appeared on behalf of the university and its board of trustees, pointing out that their argument largely overlaps with the union’s and Uradnik’s case bears no meaningful distinction from a fair reading of controlling case law that favors the union’s position.

Upon rebuttal, Raile hammered home that the union-appointed committees exercise considerable influence and give substantial power to a select few union members, ultimately arguing that “there is no constitutional right for an audience with the government.”

U.S. Circuit Judges Raymond Gruender and Steven Grasz, appointed by George W. Bush and Donald Trump, respectively, rounded out the three-judge panel on Tuesday.

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