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Nathan SchneiderFebruary 25, 2015
Rae O’Hair, left, a Duquesne University alumna, and her friend Daniele Orosz rally for unionizing adjunct faculty in December 2013.

When Catholic schools boast about “Catholic identity,” they’re usually talking about things like campus ministries, required theology courses, and Barack Obama. Despite the church’s trenchant teachings on the subject—which stand in sharp distinction to the current U.S. political climate—the rights of workers to organize is not usually part of this list. In fact, it is lately more common for Catholic universities to claim that honoring the rights of workers is an affront to their religious identity. As Clayton Sinyai wrote in his recent article for America, “Which Side Are We On?”:

Duquesne and the other Catholic universities adopting the same position (including Seattle University, St. Xavier University and Manhattan College) are trying to occupy an almost inconceivably narrow conceptual space. They are at once claiming to be too religious to be subject to enforcement action by the N.L.R.B. yet not religious enough to honor their adjuncts’ right to organize out of simple fidelity to Catholic social teaching[.]

Thanks to a 1979 Supreme Court ruling, that is, religious schools can claim an exemption from recognizing faculty who seek union representation. As a result, Catholic administrators using the same basic legal and rhetorical argument about religious freedom that they’ve been using against Affordable Care Act mandates to deny the religious freedom—the freedom to organize for dignified work—of their own employees. This is an astonishing feat of cynicism. Worse, it comes in the midst of a national crisis in which university faculty, and the students expected to learn from them, are increasingly working with intolerable wages and unsustainable conditions. Rather than taking the moral high ground, many Catholic schools are taking advantage of a legal loophole to lead a race to the bottom.

Today, faculty and students at Catholic campuses are joining their counterparts on campuses around the country in National Adjunct Walkout Day. At Seattle University, Dan Peterson is participating because, he says, he wants to see the administration “put students first by giving faculty the resources to do so—a long tradition in Jesuit education.” Peterson, a Lutheran theologian with two degrees from Jesuit schools, is taking care that the walkout has minimal impact on his students; it will occur at noon, twenty minutes before the end of one period, and he will offer four hours of make-up time. After his repeated efforts to bring complaints to the administration have been ignored, he believes collective action is necessary. Peterson currently holds a second job in order to support his teaching.

The petition associated with the Seattle University walkout, posted on the website of the Service Employees International Union, echoes his experience:

Contingent faculty members have been working hard for the past few years to develop a strategy for making their concerns, and our concerns, known. All attempts thus far have been ignored, and unionization has been actively contested by the university administration. The legal process, although drawn-out by the administration’s efforts, has resulted in a favorable decision for our faculty. That being said, this same administration appears committed to blocking efforts to change the status quo at any level.
Even with this opposition, we know we can win.

At John Carroll University in Ohio, where another organizing effort is underway, the walkout statement reads:

As students, adjunct faculty, full-time faculty, contract workers, direct employees, community members, and alumni, we call upon John Carroll University to immediately implement a Jesuit Just Employment Policy recognizing all campus workers’ right to a living wage, fair and equitable pay and benefits, a safe and just work environment, and the freedom to organize to form unions without any employer interference or retaliation.

This call for a “Jesuit Just Employment Policy” evokes the model of Georgetown University, where administrators chose to remain neutral and allowed a successful adjunct union-drive to proceed. Georgetown’s behavior should be the bare-minimum norm for Catholic institutions, not the sterling exception.

Yet the ironies pile on. The National Labor Relations Board has recently ruled against several institutions seeking to oppose unionizing by questioning their fealty to Catholic identity in the first place. Administrators then react with frenzied affirmations of Catholic identity precisely in order to continue evading their responsibility to Catholic social teaching. The more messy the situation becomes, the simpler the answer seems. The best way of affirming Catholic identity is surely to actually practice it—by letting faculty organize.

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Cody Serra
7 years 5 months ago
It is sad history of the Catholic church and its institutions in the area of just salaries or wages for their employees. The generosity of religious sisters and brothers was used to maintain Catholic schools, colleges, hospitals, parish services, etc. with minimum or no salaries at all. These days, we see the elderly population of religious orders who served them during their younger years, without even social security incomes or retirement pensions... If we are called to teach by example, the history shows Catholic social teachings have been taught for "others" to practice, while the Catholic institution used and uses any legal loophole to evade its responsibility.
Anna Harrison
7 years 5 months ago
Thank you for this article, Mr. Schneider. Adjuncts at Loyola Marymount University, where which I teach, experienced explicit union-busting, in which both administration and tenure-line faculty were complicit. (See my article, http://cheausa.org/betrayal-mission-lmu-professor-adjunct-unionization/) I am thrilled to learn of the call at John Carroll University for a Jesuit Just Employment Policy, a policy I hope we can develop and implement at Loyola Marymount University. I hope those of us at Catholic institutions of higher education will support one another in seeking a just employment policy at our home institutions. Anna Harrison, Associate Professor of Theological Studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA
Mark Piper
7 years 5 months ago
The author concludes with these two sentences: "The more messy the situation becomes, the simpler the answer seems. The best way of affirming Catholic identity is surely to actually practice it - by letting faculty organize." Uff da. I think while the author made a good faith attempt at bringing to light a very important and growing issue in the church and academia, he has sadly, over simplified the issue. Perhaps it was due to writing-length restrictions, but I do not think so as the timbre of the article suggests some unfamiliarity with the issue. My master's capstone at DePaul University was on this subject. There are a few things that I think should be noted, my biases included. 1. I am from Wisconsin and strongly support both public and private sector unions - and am very disappointed about the imminent enactment of right-to-work. 2. I am an alumnus of Saint Xavier University in Chicago 3. I flew out to NY to interview the president of Manhattan College among many other presidents of member institutions of the ACCU (Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities - they have some well written amicus briefs for both Xavs and Manhattan) as well as union organizers on the campuses. Things left out of the article: 1. Saint Xavier has a faculty union; for its full time faculty and has since the 1970s. However it is an independent union. The push recently has been by national consortium. Dennis Holtschneider CM, President of DePaul went on record in my interview (he was the former president of the ACCU) saying that national unions are using Catholic Colleges to start a trend to help save national unions - the interest in worker rights may exist but it is not the foremost concern. In fact there are Catholic colleges that have healthy relations between unions and administrators including some Vincentian Universities. 2. The schools are most certainly not trying to show the NLRB that they are "too religious" to be under their jurisdiction - this shows, it seems, a lack of reading the relevant laws. Frankly, by being Catholic they are exempt - period. And the NLRB is what makes this messy. At the regional hearing for Saint Xavier one of the vice presidents at the time, a Sister of Mercy, the founding and sponsoring order of the institution was asked questions that related to whether or not she knew if certain faculty were in "a state of grace". The questions were almost entirely theological. This is government entanglement of religion and has been and should remain unconstitutional. In effect a government agency was trying to come up with a litmus test for what constitutes "Catholic". That is disconcerting. 3. This article fails to note that at least at Manhattan College and at Saint Xavier, the adjuncts were allowed to vote. The votes remained held up in DC however due to the fact they were supervised under what has now been deemed an illegal session of the national NLRB (it was a unanimous 9-0 vote that came down last January). The opposition from these school administrators (I am not familiar with Seattle) is that they would rather an independent union body form for their adjuncts rather than the NEA or the Steel Workers union oversee their faculty - which is precisely what Saint Xavier did when full time faculty organized in the 1970s. Their union still exists to this day. 4. Last but not least - for a union to exist, there have to be 50%+1 of its employees that want it. Per point #3 above, Saint Xav's ballots are impounded in DC - that is, the second round of voting. The adjunct union vote failed at the University the first time around. A majority of adjuncts did not want it; we do not know if that is true at Manhattan because it is their first vote, I believe that remains under lock and key. There is some cynicism here. When the adjunct union vote failed, fair-and-square, the organizers decided to exempt the adjunct nursing faculty from voting in the second round. Why would that be? Well, Xav's is known for its nursing school, and the nursing adjuncts were the most vocally opposed to the unionization effort. Unionization is a crystallized right in Catholic Social Teaching; but evading decency in the vote does not permit such justice. If they want to unionize - good and fine - they have that right legally in the US and morally as pointed out in the article (though the economic consequences haven't even been discussed - both to students and no the flow of adjunct labor). All these schools are trying to do, whether they want the unionization or not is to get the NLRB off their back to avoid government entanglement. However, personally, I feel that as a prerequisite to unionization at a Catholic institution, the organizing body must be in union with the Church (most directly through Ex Corde). If they are not, they're in effect unionizing against the Church, and Her teaching. Pope Francis spoke clearly about that shortly after his election when administrators from Notre Dame paid the Holy Father a visit.
Nathan Schneider
7 years 5 months ago

Thank you for these contributions to the discussion! You raise some really valuable points, I think.

In particular, I'm interested in the points you raise about independent unions, and unions in alignment with the church. That is indeed an appealing alternative. But at present it also asks a lot of workers who are already quite vulnerable and strapped for time. National unions have the capacity to help them mount an election; until Catholic organizations are willing to provide similar support, I think it is reasonable for these workers to collaborate with an organization like the SEIU. I for one would be very eager to revive labor institutions grounded in Catholic values, and would eagerly support them.

A critical fact here, also, is that these schools employ a great many non-Catholics, and serve non-Catholic students, and experience a host of benefits from running a non-profit educational institution in the United States (such as government grants and subsidies). If the institutions want government immunity from labor law on the basis of their theological commitments, it seems appropriate for the government to investigate those theological commitments to see whether they are truly at play in the workplace. If the institutions don't want that scrutiny, they should not attempt to take advantage of the exception. Catholic institutions take advantage of the talents of non-Catholic staff, and I think it is problematic to subject those staff to an environment where they don't have the same rights that they'd have at a similar secular institution. I would argue that the priority for Catholic identity, here, is taking a position of leadership against economic injustice in the larger society, not simply circling the wagons and pretending to declare independence from the society of which these universities are already very much a part.

You raise the question of economic effects, too. This is an important question, and there's surely a rich discussion to be had about how the budgetary priorities of Catholic institutions might differ from secular counterparts. But I think a non-negotiable bottom line should be providing dignified working conditions for all workers. If doing so requires sacrifice in other areas, so be it. Hopefully Catholic identity will provide sufficient solidarity and support to make up the difference.

Mark Piper
7 years 5 months ago
Thanks for the dialogue. Working backwards to your follow up: Economics - sure there is a difference for more state schools v. Catholic ones, but I think the larger economic piece is, the size of the endowment and student size, followed by whether or not there is a full time faculty union in place (then will the admin have to bargain with two seperate unions)? Additionally it seemed to me that yes, there is clear something wrong with our use of adjuncts - I think abuse may be too strong a word but given their average pay and work load compared to say a tenured faculty member there is a huge economic disparity in the aggregate. Lastly on economics, I came across two types of adjuncts (not just pro and con on the union) and they were those will full-time jobs really just wanting to teach one class a semester, and those others whom are trying to become professors but cannot get tenure so they're trying to create the same thing for adjuncts. That raises the question for me; if they cannot get into tenured positions, would they be crowding out fellow adjuncts to come if they developed the same system that excluded them? Second - where I think just fundamentally disagree: "A critical fact here, also, is that these schools employ a great many non-Catholics, and serve non-Catholic students, and experience a host of benefits from running a non-profit educational institution in the United States (such as government grants and subsidies). If the institutions want government immunity from labor law on the basis of their theological commitments, it seems appropriate for the government to investigate those theological commitments to see whether they are truly at play in the workplace. If the institutions don't want that scrutiny, they should not attempt to take advantage of the exception." The hiring and educating non-Catholics is a moot point I think. The institutions in question like the many other agencies of the Church have hired and served non-Catholics far before changes in the labor laws in the 20th Century. I also believe your line of thinking leads to a slippery slope. There are many "Catholic" and sedevecantist churches in the US which are not canonically recognized. From the governments stand point they are still Catholic because they incorporate as a Church and you cannot trademark the word Catholic - whether or not the nonprofit is aligned with Rome. That's as much scrutiny as these institutions should have lest a government litmus test (highly illegal) be created to determine what is sufficiently Catholic. What is sufficiently Catholic is determined by the local ordinary - outside of tax forms and 990s the government should not be entangled. To the point of independent unions rather than national entities like the SEIU. Look at what is going on in San Fran with Cordelione and that doesn't even involve a union - as far as I know. But I'm digressing. The Church opposes IVF; what if the union requires as a concession that IVF or egg freezing insurance packages be included? Should a Catholic institution be forced to do what it calls wrong, and wouldn't otherwise have to do if it were not for a national union? An autonomous unions will provide the same protections and bargaining power, at least legally, as say the SEIU - but it won't have the national agenda of the SEIU. Prior to a union, some years earlier SXU had FAC (Faculty Affairs Council) which for all intense and purposes was a union save for the most important part - it had no teeth. "Legal constrains came into play; causes to take further offense arose... SXC [Saint Xavier College at the time] faculty members voted on this proposition: "The Faculty Affairs Committee is hereby and forthwith recognized as the sole and exclusive authorized bargaining agent for the faculty of Saint Xavier College, Chicago, Illinois." The election went in favor of the petitioners, SXC President Sister Irenaeus reported to the Board of Trustees... and on November 27, 1979, the National Labor Relations Board formally certified the Faculty Affairs Committee as "the exclusive representative..." for all full-time and portion of full-time teaching and library personnel at the College." (First in Chicago: A history of Saint Xavier, p 318-319). From Rerum through Laborem - the Church as clearly supported the right to organize (though as others have pointed out - we don't do a good job ourselves - perhaps to the point of hypocrisy). But no papal document or article of Catholic Social Teaching says the organizing has to be done by certain national groups. I think if the adjuncts tried forming their own autonomous unions only to seek certification from the NLRB, they would have an easier time fighting those opposed to them especially in the Administration Buildings of Catholic campuses. My cyncism also extends to the fact that many national unions, the SEIU included started taking ownership of their members pensions shortly before the crash... and now with dwindling membership nationally and pension obligations, what is going to come first: the needs to create more dues paying members to pay for their national obligations or the good of the specific Catholic school with it's particular charism? I obviously lack brevity. If you'd like to keep the conversation going - other than highlighting my weak points here - my email should be included in my registration information and you can reach me there. (Pardon any typos I'm trying to write this while I can as fast as I can).
Bob Baker
7 years 5 months ago
The book, Catholic Social Teaching and Unions in Catholic Primary and Secondary Schools, also takes the bishops to task for being somewhat two-faced in their support for unions. A survey of Catholic schools’ benefits and salaries (averaging around 80% of their public school counterparts) and working conditions are among some of the areas discussed in the book.
Andrew Di Liddo
7 years 5 months ago
An update. Now, John Carroll University's ACCREDITATION is at SERIOUS RISK. The Regional Accreditating Association has put JCU on notice in several categories/areas of evaluation. Academic Affairs Professionals in higher education familiar with accreditation and compliance reviews will tell you that the areas of deficiency at John Carroll will be extremely difficult to repair in the time allotted by the accreditation body. Pile this on all the issues discussed here and a premier Jesuit institution looks not long for this world.
  • http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2015/03/john_carroll_university_placed.html
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