RYE, N.Y. –– Whether inspired by Catholic social teaching or rulings by the National Labor Relations Board, Catholic colleges and universities will eventually sit down with their adjunct faculty members to negotiate wages and working conditions.
That's the consensus of union organizers involved in securing collective bargaining rights for adjunct and contingent faculty at religious institutions.
"Catholic social teaching is quite explicit about the importance of labor unions. The church has an obligation to not interfere and to propagate them," said Robin Sowards. He is a member of the Adjunct Faculty Association, a group formed by Duquesne University faculty and associated with the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh.
Duquesne University, which describes itself as "a Catholic university in the Spiritan tradition," is one of three Catholic schools that have appealed NLRB decisions to allow adjunct faculty to unionize. The others are Manhattan College in Bronx, N.Y., and St. Xavier University in Chicago. Manhattan was founded by the Lasallian Brothers of the Christian Schools and St. Xavier by the Sisters of Mercy.
At issue is whether Catholic schools can block unions on the basis that the NLRB could potentially have jurisdiction over religious disputes. This would violate the constitutional separation of government and religion. The NLRB's duties include ensuring the right of employees who choose to participate in a union to organize and bargain collectively with their employers.
Representatives of Duquesne and Manhattan declined to be interviewed by Catholic News Service.
St. Xavier spokeswoman Karla Thomas Aug. 15 disputed a reference by CNS to university officials declining an interview because, she said, they cannot comment on pending litigation. She forwarded a statement by Kathleen A. Rinehart, St. Xavier's general counsel, which she said she had provided in June.
"This matter is currently before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Washington, D.C. The university does not comment on pending litigation, and we do not know when a decision by the board will be issued. However, all briefs related to this matter have been filed with the NLRB and are available for you to read. – http://www.nlrb.gov/search/simple/all/saint%20xavier%20university."
A 1979 Supreme Court decision (NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago) and subsequent judicial and administrative determinations held that religious schools and colleges are exempt from NLRB jurisdiction. Nonetheless, adjunct faculty have appealed to regional offices of the NLRB to allow union groups to represent them.
Legal precedents prohibit tenure-track faculty at most private institutions from unionizing. As adjunct faculty members have become a larger percentage of the academic staff at colleges and universities, many have sought to unionize. Their efforts have been more successful at nonreligious private institutions than at Catholic ones.
Alan Trevithick, an adjunct at Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York, is a founding member of New Faculty Majority, which he said is "the biggest nonunion advocacy group" for adjuncts. In a telephone interview with CNS, Trevithick said adjuncts were traditionally practitioners of a specific discipline who taught part time. "It made sense for the teacher and the institution and was neither exploitive nor a diminution of status," he said.
The practice spread to academic disciplines and now more than half of the courses at most schools are taught by adjuncts, Trevithick said. According to Modern Language Association statistics for 2009, the latest data available, adjuncts comprised 53 percent of the faculty at Manhattan and 62 percent at both Duquesne and St. Xavier.
Trevithick said adjuncts receive one-third of tenure-track faculty compensation, and work without benefits or job security. "It's one thing to have modestly recompensed faculty, but another to have people falling below the national median income," he said.
"Schools don't want to confront the ethical reality of this. It devalues the whole notion of higher education and it's not sustainable," he said.
Trevithick, who also teaches anthropology and sociology at non-Catholic schools, said there is no difference between the way he is treated at Catholic and non-Catholic schools. "I feel equally exploited," he laughed.
There is no active campaign to form an adjunct union at Fordham, Thevithick said, but he predicted there will be more attempts on Catholic campuses. "Adjuncts are part of the teaching majority and they have equal or better rights than their full-time colleagues to put together a collective bargaining unit. It's inevitable that you'll see attempts to organize," he said.
The NLRB and the three Catholic schools awaiting ruling on their appeals disagreed on key points. The schools pointed to their religious affiliations and the labor board said it found the institutions to be largely secular. Among the considerations examined by the board were the number of trustee seats reserved for the members of the founding order; the inclusion of religious language in the articles of incorporation; whether the budget is derived from religious groups; if there are religious requirements for students, faculty members or adjuncts; and whether students are required to study Catholicism.
"This is not about religion. It's about preventing the most poorly paid employees to be represented by a union," said Sowards, who teaches English and linguistics. "To say that as a Catholic university you're too Catholic for the government but not Catholic enough to follow your own teachings is profoundly hypocritical."
He added, "Academic values are not in conflict with Catholicism, but are a product of the Catholic intellectual tradition, which supports a belief in the importance of reason and the free pursuit of truth."
Sowards said adjuncts at Duquesne want higher wages and representation in the faculty senate.
Adjunct faculty at Georgetown University in Washington won union representation quickly and without resistance from the administration, according to David Rodich, executive director of Local 500 of Service Employees International Union. "The university was very constructive in its view and took a neutral stance with respect to unionization," he said. "Georgetown chose to adhere to the principals of Catholic social teaching, including the right to form a union. They enunciated that early on – and adhered to it."
In a May 14 statement after the union vote at Georgetown, university provost Robert M. Groves said: "As stated in Georgetown's Just Employment Policy, the university respects employees' rights to freely associate and organize, which includes voting for or against union representation without intimidation, unjust pressure, undue delay or hindrance in accordance with applicable law. We appreciate the participation of all of those voters who cast ballots in the election and we will respect the wishes of the majority vote."
Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Washington-based Association for Catholic Colleges and Universities, said in a statement to CNS that Catholic colleges and universities respect and support the moral rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively, but reject the jurisdiction of the NLRB.