Labor board: Adjunct professors at Catholic university can form union

by Marie Rohde

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The National Labor Relations Board ruled April 17 that adjunct professors at Seattle University have a right to form a union and the Jesuit school is not exempt from the board's jurisdiction based on religious freedom protections under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The university received the decision Thursday.

The Seattle case is the fourth from a Catholic college or university to go to the NLRB. The other three Catholic schools -- Pittsburgh's Duquesne University in 2011, followed by Manhattan College in New York and Saint Xavier University in Chicago -- are fighting the regional NLRB's decisions, arguing that separation of church and state bars the governmental agency from exercising jurisdiction over the Catholic institution.

Georgetown University, a Jesuit school in Washington D.C., opted to remain neutral when its adjunct faculty voted to affiliate with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in 2013. The faculty overwhelmingly voted in favor of joining the union. Contract negotiations are now underway.

A spokeswoman for Seattle said Thursday that no decision has been made on whether the Jesuit university will join the fight.

At all four schools, the treatment of adjuncts has raised questions and protests that the schools are not living up to church social justice teaching.

Adjuncts -- also known as contingent faculty -- are well-educated contract employees who work quarter to quarter, usually with no health insurance or other benefits. They have no right to file for unemployment compensation if their contracts are not renewed and are most often paid far less than their tenured and tenured-track colleagues.

The number of adjuncts in American universities is growing rapidly, and the movement is not unique to Catholic institutions.

According to the American Association of University Professors, 70 percent of faculty at all colleges and universities are now adjuncts and 30 percent are tenure-line. In 1975, only 43 percent of faculty was adjunct and 57 percent was tenure-track.

Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct French professor at Duquesne University for 25 years, became the unlikely poster girl for the cause when she died last year at 83 of a heart attack.

According to a Pittsburgh Gazette column written by her union's lawyer, Daniel Kovalik, Vojtko taught three classes a semester and two during the summer, earning less than $25,000, and had no health insurance until about a year before she died. The year she died, her teaching load was reduced to one class, bringing in $10,000 a year, Kovalik wrote. Mounting medical bills -- she had cancer -- left her unable to pay the utility bills on her home. She took a job working nights at a restaurant chain and slept in her office because her house was too cold until police ejected her from the office, he said.

University authorities protested that Kovalik's characterization was unfair, saying they had tried to help her.

Even before Vojtko's death, the effort of the adjuncts to unionize prompted protests and petitions. The Association of Pittsburgh Priests issued a statement in support, noting that it was the eve of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, timing that made it "both appropriate and necessary to question and challenge" the university's position that a union would infringe on religious freedom. The priests noted that the council had asserted "among the basic rights of the human person must be counted the right of freely founding labor unions ... without risk of reprisal."

Larry Cushnie, a political science professor at Seattle, considers himself lucky. He teaches full-time and has health benefits. But as an adjunct, he knows "if one of those classes gets canceled, I could lose those benefits without any warning."

Like other adjuncts, Cushnie is a contract employee. He doesn't know yet if he will have a job -- and whether it will be full-time -- for the next term.

"There are people here who have been working off of nine-month contracts for years," Cushnie said. "Job security has never been a part of their lives. (The lack of security) has been hanging over our heads and it's hard, as a human being, to plan our lives and go forward."

At Seattle, the adjuncts make up more than half the faculty. The Jesuits on the campus have not been vocal about the issue.

"We've been asking them how this situation merges with the Catholic support of labor in the past but have not gotten a response," Cushnie said. "We realized that they might raise the First Amendment issue, so we offered to arbitrate such matters through a nongovernmental authority that would be outside the NLRB. We delivered that directly to the president and it has been ignored."

Neither Fr. Stephen Sundborg, Seattle's president, nor Isiaah Crawford, the provost, were immediately available when contacted by NCR.

Seattle University has stated its position in opposition to the union effort online. In part, it states that what defines the school is the value placed on its mission. "The culture to which we aspire thrives on collegiality, engagement and open dialogue ... while still imperfect and evolving, it is preferable to third-party representation that often is based on confrontation and distrust and can hinder dialogue and direct communication."

[Marie Rohde is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee.]

A version of this story appeared in the May 9-22, 2014 print issue under the headline: Labor board: Adjunct professors at Catholic university can form union.

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