A Case for Adjunct Faculty to Organise at Catholic Universities

BY PETER N. KIRSTEIN

I realise this post may not endear me to the leadership of my university, but I will approach this with the knowledge it appears on an A.A.U.P. blog! Catholic universities such as Saint Xavier, Duquesne, and Manhattan have fiercely resisted the right of part-time faculty to organise into a collective bargaining unit. Despite repeated rulings from regional National Labor Relations Board directors that the National Labor Relations Act applies to adjunct faculty at faith-based institutions, (See Pacific Lutheran for guidance), these three institutions have repeatedly appealed their pro-union decisions to the N.L.R.B. in Washington, D.C.

Last year, the N.L.R.B. sent the appeals back to the regional N.L.R.B. offices with the directive to apply Pacific Lutheran to those institutions. In June 2015 the Chicago N.L.R.B. office ruled again in favour of the adjuncts’ right to organise, and that the ballots from the 2011 election should be counted. For five years! Yes five years, the votes of adjunct faculty under N.L.R.B. supervision at my university have been impounded, waiting for a definitive ruling by the national N.L.R.B.

The three universities’ basic argument is that the First Amendment provides for a separation of church and state. Therefore, they claim a religious exemption from federal labour law that otherwise would represent an unwarranted intrusion into the sovereignty and religiosity of faith-based universities. In other words, their religious charism immunises them from N.L.R.B. intervention.

In Illinois private universities are heavily subsidised by the taxpayer. As some are aware, the Monetary Award Program (M.A.P.) as I noted in an earlier post, “provides an average of about $2800 to low-income students that defrays tuition at state and private universities across the state of Illinois.” Saint Xavier receives around $6,400,000 and despite the anti-education governor Bruce Rauner, did receive an installment of about $3.4 million. It has not received the full amount for academic year 2015-2016 which is a significant headwind for the institution. Such monies are very important in retaining the viability of many private, not to mention public institutions, of higher learning.

In addition, Catholic universities receive federal grants such as Pell Grants, and Work Study, which began during the Great Society/War on Poverty programs of Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. In addition military veterans receive significant financial aid to attend institutions of higher learning, regardless of their status as private or public institutions.

To claim a religious exemption to stymie the right of adjunct faculty to organise, and yet rely heavily upon state and federal aid borne by the taxpayers, strikes me as inconsistent and regrettably an unpardonable contradiction. The main reason why the three institutions do not want their adjunct faculty to organise is a reluctance to improve the compensation of these faculty members.They don’t want to pay a subsistence wage to part-time faculty who educate our students with skill, preparation and expertise. Let them concede that in order to clear the air!

At my university, we have a union for full-time tenured and non-tenured (F.T.N.T.T.) faculty that was formed the year before the infamous Yeshiva case in 1980. It is one of the older unions in the Roman Catholic world of higher education. I think academic justice, academic freedom, and human rights are enhanced when all faculty enjoy the rights that so many labour activists from Eugene Victor Debs to Dr Martin Luther King Jr fought and died for.

4 thoughts on “A Case for Adjunct Faculty to Organise at Catholic Universities

  1. At my Jesuit institution (Saint Louis University), the adjuncts just voted to form a union. The administration wasn’t thrilled about it and made some comments during the lead-up to the vote along the lines of “You don’t have to do this,” but took little action in opposition–certainly not challenging it with the NLRB. (Our regular faculty do not have collective bargaining.)

    I took part in the strategic planning process a couple years ago, chairing the committee in charge of articulating our vision for workplace environment. I made sure we included, front and center, social obligation to our employees, including adjuncts; this plank has been accepted by the university, and it finds expression often in the Faculty Senate and other venues.

    So there is wide latitude among Catholic universities in this regard. SLU is particularly sensitive to social justice, as part of our Jesuit mission–at least, in our collective and official aspirations. Carrying it forward to practicalities is another matter, of course.

    Stacey Harris
    president, SLU AAUP Chapter

    • So glad, Stacey, S.L.U. is recovering from Biondi era. Sounds like Georgetown and even Loyola U Chicago that did not thwart the rights of adjuncts to unionise. The disparity between many Jesuit and other Catholic universities is indeed striking. I went to S.L.U. grad and taught there as an adjunct, and it was just a great place.

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