The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is tightening the noose as it ups the ante in recognizing the rights of adjunct faculty in private, religious colleges and universities to unionize. This decision could also be a first step in the long-term efforts of the National Education Association (NEA) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to achieve a much larger agenda: To unionize all full-time faculty teaching in religious institutions of higher education.
At issue is the NLRB’s contention that if these institutions are to remain nonunionized, they must provide evidence that individual faculty members in their teaching role are directly responsible for furthering the religious mission of these institutions, similar to how members of religious congregations did in the past.
The NLRB’s approach is especially disconcerting for academic administrators at the nation’s Catholic institutions of higher education because, in contrast to the past, the overwhelming number of faculty members in these institutions today are laypersons, some of whom are not Catholic and most of whom do not view themselves as contracted to further the religious mission of the institutions at which they teach.
Compounding the problem, academic administrators generally don’t require faculty members to demonstrate that they further their institutional missions. Like faculty, academic administrators believe that such a requirement is antithetical to academic freedom as well as to the espoused goal of being institutions that are characterized by inclusivity among faculty and, in this sense, diversity of thought. In short, that faculty be “catholic” and avoid what many administrators and faculty believe is the narrow parochialism of being “Catholic.”
That said, the NLRB is now treating these institutions in the same way it would treat public and secular universities and colleges.
In 2015, the NLRB remanded three cases concerning Catholic institutions of higher education to NLRB Regional Directors, delegating to them the authority to determine whether individual faculty members at those institutions actually perform religious functions. The NRLB’s litmus test for determining whether an institution has a “substantial religious character” to claim a religious exemption from the NLRB’s jurisdiction states:
…faculty members are required to integrate the institution’s religious tenets into coursework, serve as religious advisors to students, propagate those tenets, engage in religious training, or conform to the tenets in a manner specifically linked to their job duties.
Any 1 of the above 4 requirements is sufficient to exempt a Catholic institution of higher education from the NLRB’s jurisdiction. But, in several cases during recent years, the NLRB has found no substantial evidence to suggest this is the case.
For example, in its supplemental decision in the Seattle University case, the NLRB found:
There is no evidence in the record that faculty members are required to serve as religious advisors to students, propagate the tenets of the Society of Jesus, engage in religious training, or conform to the tenets of Catholicism in the course of their job duties. In short, a reasonable candidate for a contingent faculty position at Seattle University would not conclude that performance of their faculty responsibilities would require furtherance of a religious mission.
Just the other day, the Region 13 National Labor Relations Board decided that that adjuncts at Saint Xavier University (Chicago) (SXU) may count their union election votes. That effort was put on hold 4 years ago when SXU contested the NEA’s union drive, arguing that its Catholic identity put SXU beyond the NLRB’s jurisdiction.
However, when the NLRB remanded several similar adjunct union cases to its regional offices for further consideration in light of the Pacific Lutheran University decision, the new guidelines for evaluating similar cases were then used to re-evaluate the SXU case. SXU has 2 weeks to appeal is reviewing its options.
Then, just yesterday, non-tenure-track faculty at Siena College voted 102 to 32 to form a collective bargaining unit affiliated with SEIU.
In statement to the Times-Union, academic administrators said that as a Franciscan and Catholic institution, “we recognize and respect the dignity of work, the right of workers to organize and the need for all workers to make informed decisions.” The administrators are committed to “productive dialogue” with the bargaining unit.
According to Inside Higher Ed, a visiting assistant professor of history at Siena, Mara Drogan, said that she hoped the union would help set new standards for faculty pay, benefits, and working conditions across the Albany region and beyond.
While the rhetoric of being a “catholic” institution in whatever tradition may work with trustees, administrators, faculty, alumni/ae, prospective parents of students, and students, the handwriting is on the wall and is crystal clear. The NLRB doesn’t believe for a moment that the institutions in the cases that have been brought before it have demonstrated that they are sufficiently Catholic. Lawyers don’t care much for doublespeaque. For them, it’s all about “truth in advertising” or today’s buzzword “transparency.”
Cry “catholic” all they want, the NLRB isn’t buying the argument. It won’t be very long before the NEA and SEIU renew their efforts to unionize the full-time faculty teaching at the nation’s Catholic universities and colleges. Why? They aren’t “sufficiently” Catholic.
Why is the NLRB calling out these institutions and the nation’s bishops aren’t?
To read the NLRB’s Pacific Lutheran decision, click on the following link:
To read the NLRB’s supplemental decision in the Seattle University case, click on the following link:
To read the Inside Higher Ed article, click on the following link:
To read the Times Union article, click on the following link:
To read The Motley Monk’s daily blog, Omnibus, click on the following link: