High Court Upholds Minnesota Law On Campus Role of Union Members

By Thomas Toch — February 29, 1984 5 min read

Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court last week upheld a Minnesota labor law that allows college unions that have been selected as exclusive bargaining agents to bar non-union faculty members from a formal role in policymaking on campus.

Some lawyers said last week that the decision may result in broadening the influence of teachers’ unions in precollegiate education.

In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court held that non-union faculty members’ constitutional rights of free speech and association were not violated by the law, as a federal district court in Minnesota had found.

The law provides for formal discussions between professional employees and their employers on matters of policy that are not included in the mandatory wage-and-hour issues discussed under collective-bargaining rules.

When the employees are represented by a union, the law allows the union to select the representatives to the so-called “meet-and-confer” committees.

Represented by the National Right to Work Committee, 20 faculty members at the state’s community colleges who refused to join the Minnesota Community College Faculty Association and were thus barred from participating in the meet-and-confer sessions, challenged the union’s exclusive right to select representatives for the sessions.

The lower federal court found that the arrangement violated the faculty members’ rights under the First and 14th Amendments. Both the union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, and the governing board of the community-college system appealed.

In reversing the district court’s ruling, Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the author of the majority opinion, wrote: “However wise or practicable various levels of public participation in various kinds of policy decisions may be, this Court has never held, and nothing in the Constitution suggests it should hold, that government must provide for such participation.”

Public officials at all levels of government “daily make policy decisions based only on the advice they decide they need and choose to hear,” she also wrote.

“It is inherent in a republican form of government that direct public participation in government policymaking is limited,” she said, adding that non-union faculty members were nonetheless free to express their views on college policy through other, informal channels and often did so.

In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens said, “The First Amendment does not permit any state legislature to grant a single favored speaker an effective monopoly on the opportunity to petition the government.” Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. and Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. joined parts of Justice Stevens’ dissent.

In his own opinion, Justice Brennan said the 13-year-old Minnesota law “impermissibly forces” non-union faculty members to choose between their First Amendment rights of free speech and their freedom of association.

Edwin Vieira Jr., a consulting lawyer for the National Right to Work Committee, said the Court’s ruling in support of the Minnesota labor law will be likely to encourage teachers’ unions nationwide to push for similar provisions calling for the exclusive right to appoint representatives to teacher-administrator discussions of nonsalary topics.

“The Supreme Court is telling the teachers’ unions in the 30 or so states with collective-bargaining laws that they can claim that their role as exclusive agent can be extended beyond the terms of collective-bargaining agreements,” he said.

“The effect will be to extend the unions’ monopolistic control over the teaching profession.”

Robert H. Chanin, general counsel to the nea, also suggested that the case may have broad implications. He said that while only a “handful” of states have laws that, like Minnesota’s, grant a bargaining agent the exclusive right to appoint individuals to discuss issues other than those in collective-bargaining agreements, the Court’s ruling seems to widen the scope of the principle of exclusive representation by bargaining agents.

Mr. Chanin described the Court’s decision as a “total defeat” of the National Right to Work Committee’s effort to use the case to limit the scope of union representation. In an earlier phase of the case, the committee challenged--and the district court and the Supreme Court upheld--the exclusive right of the community-college union to represent faculty members in collective bargaining.

The case was Minnesota State Board v. Knight (Case No. 82-898).

Section 504 Standard

In other action last week, the Court agreed to consider a case that will give it an opportunity to set a legal standard for identifying violations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal law intended to protect the rights of the handicapped.

The law, increasingly used by handicapped students in suits against education authorities, provides that no handicapped person who is otherwise qualified can be denied the benefits of a program that receives federal funds.

The question presented to the Court in the case of Alexander v. Jennings (No. 83-727) is whether the law is satisfied as long as the handicapped are given equal access to a program, or whether it also requires equality of results.

The case was initially brought in federal district court by handicapped Tennesee Medicaid recipients who attempted to block the state’s move to reduce the number of days of in-patient hospital care covered under its Medicaid program on the grounds that it would be a greater hardship on handicapped recipients than on nondisabled Medicaid recipients.

Although statistics suggested that the 14-day limit proposed by Tennessee would be sufficient to meet the medical needs of 72 percent of the handicapped but 92 percent of the nondisabled, the district court ruled that Section 504 was never intended to ensure equality of results but only equal access by the handicapped to programs such as Medicaid; on those grounds, the court allowed the state to carry out its plan.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the decision and the State of Tennessee appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, arguing that the district court’s interpretation of Section 504 was the correct one.

A version of this article appeared in the February 29, 1984 edition of Education Week as High Court Upholds Minnesota Law On Campus Role of Union Members