Unions say Minnesota’s new labor board is ‘superior in every way,’ but its future remains uncertain

As negotiations over a new, two-year budget come down to the wire, Minnesota lawmakers this month will determine the fate of a newly opened state agency dedicated to keeping public-sector labor disputes out of court.

Public-sector workers and their unions are pushing lawmakers to fully fund the Public Employment Relations Board, which began accepting unfair-labor-practice complaints from employers, unions and employees in July 2020.

Previously, those complaints would land in district court, where they might languish for a year or longer as parties on both sides racked up legal fees.

In a press conference today, union leaders and DFL legislators called the PERB a faster, more cost effective and accessible way to settle charges of unfair labor practices in the public sector.

“It is superior in every way to having to litigate a dispute about whether the district violated (labor law) in court,” St. Paul Federation of Educators President Nick Faber said, noting that the district’s legal fees take “resources out of the classroom.”

When they established the PERB in 2014, state lawmakers modeled it after the National Labor Relations Board, charged with upholding federal labor law in the private sector. Rather than going to court, private-sector workers and employers file any charges of unfair labor practices with the NLRB.

Delores Flynn, a home care worker from Roseville, said members of her union filed a complaint with the PERB last year, after growing frustrated with a lack of clarity from state agencies over how a temporary pay increase related to the pandemic would be administered. Workers’ complaint received a hearing last month.

“Whatever the ruling is, there was a fair process for both sides – the union and the state agencies – to make our legal arguments and be heard,” said Flynn, a member of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. “That is how it should be – not just for us in home care but for all public-sector workers.”

But like most issues that unions pushed lawmakers to prioritize this year, funding for the PERB is caught in a standoff between the DFL-controlled House and the Republican Senate.

In their omnibus jobs bill, House DFLers signed off on the agency’s funding request of roughly $1 million over the next two years. But Republicans’ version of the bill would defund the PERB and explicitly direct public-sector complaints back into district court until July 1, 2023.

In today’s press conference, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler Winkler slammed Republicans for “being held hostage to an ideological agenda that opposes organized labor.”

Rep. Mohamud Noor, lead author of the House bill, said Republicans refuse to acknowledge the efficiencies the PERB offers both for public-sector workers and for the cities, counties, school districts and state agencies that employ them.

“This is truly a more innovative process,” Noor said.

Lawmakers are set to return for a special session next week. They must pass 14 budget bills into law by June 30 to avoid risking a state government shutdown.

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