Labor board orders ballots counted in Seattle University union bid

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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The push for unionization at Seattle University moved forward Tuesday as a regional labor board ruled that ballots cast by adjunct professors seeking to form a union be counted.

In a 14-page ruling, Ronald Hooks, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, ordered that the votes be opened and tallied.

The university has until March 17 to decide if it will appeal the decision.

An appeal by the school in April 2014 had the ballots impounded after the board ruled earlier that month the adjunct, or contingent, professors -- which account for more than half the school's 766 faculty members -- had the right to unionize. The mail election was held from May 14 to June 2 that year.

The Jesuit-founded university of 7,400 students has contended that as a religious institution, religious freedom protections in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution exempt it from the labor board's jurisdiction.

The Hooks ruling relied heavily on a December case involving Pacific Lutheran University, in which the labor board revised the standards for declining jurisdiction over religious-based schools. The new rules stipulate a university must: first, identify itself as providing a religious educational environment; and second, hold its contingent faculty to a specific role in maintaining that environment.

While the school met the first standard, Hooks said it failed to demonstrate that its adjunct faculty are expected to conform to or propagate tenants of the Catholic faith.

"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," Hooks said in his decision.

Contingent faculty at Seattle University seeking unionization said they were "thrilled" with the regional board's ruling.

"We hope that Seattle University administrators will put aside any remaining legal roadblocks to a vote count so that we can work together in the Jesuit and Catholic tradition to build a better SU," Louisa Edgerly, a communications and journalism instructor, said in a statement.

The labor board's decision comes six days after more than 400 Seattle University contingent faculty, students and supporters walked out of classrooms as part of National Adjunct Walkout Day.

The Seattle faculty have called for greater university support for adjuncts in the form of office space and resources and criticized rising tuition costs and corporate influence on the university. The university has responded that base salaries for full-time, non-tenure-track faculty have risen to $45,000 for the current academic year and said it is working to alleviate office space issues.

A 2012 report by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce indicated that contingent faculty represented more than 75 percent of the 1.8 million faculty in U.S. higher education.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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