Is Union-Busting a Right of Conscience?

In what has become a continuing unhappy subplot of the dispute over the contraceptive mandate, a third Catholic university has now asked the National Labor Relations Board for an exemption from the Wagner Act on the grounds of its religious identity. Adjunct faculty at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University have sought to join the Steelworkers Union, but the school says that as a religious institution it is can refuse to recognize and bargain with them. The Pittsburgh school is echoing a stand taken by New York’s Manhattan College and Chicago’s Saint Xavier University.

But the schools’ case is very different from that of Catholic hospitals in a major respect. Catholic social teaching on the right to organize is explicit and supportive: as Pope Benedict has affirmed, “the repeated calls issued within the Church's social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum[60], for the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past.” Where the Catholic hospitals are seeking an exemption from the mandate so they can honor Catholic teaching on contraception, the universities seem to be seeking an exemption from the National Labor Relations Act so that they can violate Catholic teaching on labor.


The episode points up the crying need for a public policy solution that protects the conscience rights of Catholic hospitals while preventing those with more dubious causes from hitching a ride on the fortnight for freedom. It would be helpful if the USCCB would clarify that union-busting was not one of the freedoms the fortnight is intended to preserve.

Clayton Sinyai


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Rick Fueyo
6 years 9 months ago
I think this episode points to some of the potentially problematic aspects of the Administration simply agreeing that any Catholic institution is a religious employer for all purposes. To my understanding, that would create broad-based exemption from many generally applicable laws. In the Hosanna Tabor decision, the so-called "ministerial exception", which would seemingly be applicable to all employees if the employer as a whole was a religious employer, completely insulated the religious employer from any examination of whether they had violated the FMLA (from memory) and terminating an employee. Again, this may be slightly oversimplifying, my understanding is that once you are "religious employer" eventuated extremely broad-based exemption from many generally applicable laws.

Consequently, while those opposing the mandate have talked about the danger of that definition serving as precedent for other laws, I can see the opposite risk, whereby actions like this are legally sanctioned. The whole point in the argument against the Administration is that it should not determine what constitutes religious practice. Consequently, contra the determination of conscientious objection, the Administration would have to simply accept the employer's statement that it was acting under religious conscience, even an episode like this one, in which it seems that the employer is acting contrary to the dictates of teaching.

Then again, color me cynical. I would like to think that the clear Church teachings in favor of labor would cause the USCCB to step in here. But I'm not sure they do they believe it will offend the electoral possibilities of the Republican party, which seems to be the paramount concern of late,
David Pasinski
6 years 9 months ago
I appreciate the legal analysis. In our diocese there was aproblem with unionized cemetery workers than I cannot remember how it was settled, but I know that many opined that the Church had reneged on its respect for unions.

And dare we talk about union issues at Catholic hospitals?
Tom Maher
6 years 9 months ago
Union rights are too often presented as absolute rights and claim union rights as the top priority when union rights are in conflict with other rights such as the freedom of religion.  The right of a union above all other rights and freedoms is an extreme,  excessive and absurd.  It is well beyond the requrements of Catholcis social teaching which does not require worker hegemony. The voting public as shown earlier this month in Wisconsin's recall election of its governor overwhelming rejected union power to dictate to politicians the terms of their employment as a costly excessive burden on society.  Unions have become so powerful and their demands so burdensome that all parts of society expect and carefully question union demands for excessiveness.   

One inherent conflict of course was always can a non-profit religious service afford to pay top-dollar union rates for the services they need?   One of the reasons so many Catholic hospitals have closed their doors after decades is that in the last forty years they were too much concerced with workers rights and too little concerned with providing a service to the public at rates that the public could afford.  They failed to make the proper balance of interests to maintain a viable operation.  ( The same could be said of General Motors and other large profit making enterprises.)  So reality bites the Catholic moralist again who are blind to larger moral context of rights,  laws, truth and freedoms. 
Gabriel Marcella
6 years 9 months ago
Adjuncts are the lowliest in the academic pecking order. They have no rights, few privileges, and little hope of ascending into the ranks of tenure track professors. Yet many are very dedicated and effective in the classroom, often bringing invaluable experience and insights from the world of business, science, public service,and international affairs. Apparently "about 100" are involved in the unionization effort at Duquesne's McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts. As universities resort to adjuncts more and more to teach a substantial number of courses and keep faculty costs down, the question arises of whether it's appropriate to consider some scheme of minimum rights. Should part timers have rights and what would they be?
6 years 9 months ago
Union rights are too often presented as absolute rights and unions claim union rights as the top priority when union rights are in conflict with other rights such as the freedom to treat adjunct faculty as what they are, i.e., slaves a/k/a hewers of wood and drawers of water. Universities have an absolute right to foist off overworked, underpaid and distracted workers as real teachers, and charge for their classes accordingly. If the teachings of popes since Leo XIII and theologians since St. Basil had been internalized, adjuncts and TAs would be treated like human beings and encouraged to associate with each other on that basis. However, since freedom of money trumps all rights in this country, and since church leaders are me-too, ecept in cases of contraception and abortion (which don't affect the bottom line), Catholic institutions may treat their slaves as helots.

It all began with the teaching sisters who could have retired to big closets and four maids, just like archbishops, if they had ever been paid what they were worth.
Richard Garnett
6 years 9 months ago
It is not inconsistent, as a general matter, with the Church's longstanding support for workers' associational rights for a Catholic institution to resist the Wagner Act or the jurisdiction of the NLRB.  The Church's social-teaching supports the dignity of labor and the rights of workers, but not (necessarily) all aspects of the American labor-law regime, which religious institutions (including Catholic ones) could conclude excessively interferes with their character, mission, and freedom.  It would, for example, be very dangerous to the mission and character of parochial schools if their relationships with their teachers were, for employment- and labor-law purposes, the same as the relationships between public schools and unionized public-school teachers.  It depends . . .
Liam Richardson
6 years 9 months ago
Within the Catholic context (that is, putting aside the civil context), objecting to the application of civil union rules can only credibly be considered moral if the objecting institution first proposes a serious and credible alternative to the associational rights of employees. The lack of this would be prima facie evidence of bad faith.
Marie Rehbein
6 years 9 months ago
The more exemptions from the nation's laws the Catholic affiliated institutions demand, the more Catholicism begins to look like a cult intent on undermining the way of life in this country. 

It's already difficult to convince non-Catholics that the Catholic Church does not enjoy special privilege in this country at the expense of the general public.  If this fortnight event gets enough publicity it is likely to make more enemies for the Church.

Here is what it looks like now:

1. Catholicism opposes paying for other people's contraceptives, but is OK with Catholics paying for their own.

2. Catholicism supports labor organizing itself, but not when the employer is Catholic.
Vince Killoran
6 years 9 months ago
Mary is correct-Cosgrove's understanding of ad hoc faculty is dated.

The most recent survey presents a grim picture: 

Unions are needed now more than ever-in Catholic & non-Catholic workplaces! 
David Pasinski
6 years 9 months ago
Well said, Marie. Perception isn't everything, but it means a good deal! 
Rick Garnett's "depends" is not too helpful, but I suppose that it's the best possible without a  treatise or case by case analysis. The one case that I cited of gravediggers evoked a lot of ill will regarding the apparent hypocrisy of the Church and labor. And I am aware one anti-union campaign at a Catholic hospital that was questionable in various ways.
Jim McCrea
6 years 9 months ago
And people wonder why this church and its entities are respected less and less each day. Hypocrisy: they name is Duquesne.

May the alumni either stop their contributions or hang their heads in shame, shame, shame.

Oops, silly me:  Duquesne is just being prudential, right?  Cafeteria-ism reigns.
J Cosgrove
6 years 9 months ago
I looked through the document about part time college teachers.  It was fairly interesting and reading it reminded my of my time doing something similar.  I did not do a complete reading but read several places about their teaching loads, pay etc.  Some brief observations.

It doesn't look any different than when I was doing this 20 years ago and if the survey was given then it would probably look the same.  It looks like the same type of person teaching now as then and in similar situations.  There was no indication as to when the courses were being taught.  My experience was that the night school courses were heavily taught by adjuncts as was a lot of the summer school programs.  It is often difficult to get a tenured teacher to teach at night.

For the last 10 years I have been taking courses at the local community college and all but one of the instructors were adjuncts who had other jobs.  Now this was in computer graphics but the non computer courses were being taught by similar people, people who had other employment but wanted to earn some extra money.

I was amazed at how little they receive.  I was getting near the same amount of money per 3 credit course in the late 80's/early 90's as they are getting now.  For a few years I would earn some extra bucks picking up a night school course at a local university or during the summer as well as where I was teaching.  Given the high salaries that they pay full time tenured professors these days and the tremendous increase in tuition costs, I would have assumed they would make more.

There was little about the competition for the courses amongst a pool of instructors.  How many would do it if the opportunity came up.  Who are these people?  One time when I was teaching they were desperate for a qualified person, they offered a thousand more than normal to teach and additional night school course because they already had 20 enrolled in the course and no warm body to teach it. 

A lot of them are teaching English and literature.  Why? A fair amount said they would be interested in a full time tenured track position but a lot were not interested so I assume they have a job elsewhere.

As I said the report was interesting but did not contradict anything that I experienced 20 years ago except for the low pay.  If I was an adjunct, I would look for another job because there is no future in it unless one has another income source.  I know that is easy to say and hard to do as some really need extra money.  Teaching is a fun thing to do and I certainly enjoyed it so I know why people want to do it.  Another area that is comparable is music.  People love music but it does not pay well except for the lucky.  I know several musicians who scratch out a living a few dollars at a time because they love music.
John Hayes
6 years 9 months ago
It would, for example, be very dangerous to the mission and character of parochial schools if their relationships with their teachers were, for employment- and labor-law purposes, the same as the relationships between public schools and unionized public-school teachers.

My impression is that the issue was resolved by the Supreme Court for Catholic elementary (and high?) schools by the "Catholic Bishop" case (no obligation to permit unions in those schools).

I also have a recollection (which i havent looked up) that Duquesne got a ruling years ago that they didn't have to allow a union for full-tIme professors because those professors were managers. 

I wouldn't think that that argument willl work for adjunct professors. 
Vince Killoran
6 years 9 months ago
"[T]he report was interesting but did not contradict anything that I experienced 20 years ago except for the low pay."

Other than that how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?
6 years 9 months ago
The latest news on this situation (over at dot cpmmonweal) is that the NLRB turned Duquesne down. here's their link:

Probably not the end of the story, though. What of the other groups that apparently filed similar claims-among them the Association of Catholic Collges and Universities and, sad to say,  a group representing all the Jesuit schools and colleges? 

J Cosgrove
6 years 9 months ago
''except for the low pay''

These are generally well educated people so they should find an alterative to this type of employment if they are not happy.  Just because they have a degree or even an advanced one no one has an obligation to pay them anything for it.  When I was an adjunct, I was glad of the opportunity to make some money but had no illusions that this was a career or that I needed help to get more money.  Of course I would have liked to be paid more but it was the going rate and I qualified for the positions.

Those who object should use their skills some place else that pays better.  These are not oppressed employees in bad working conditions. If they think the colleges are not paying them enough, there are alternatives.

The real problem in higher education is tuition costs.  With the proliferation of online courses, this may be ameliorated in the future and may make the use of adjuncts a thing of the past as everyone can have access to online courses.  Stanford, MIT and Harvard are starting to implement it for non matriculated students.  What will be missing will be the football games on Saturday and the beer parties on Friday night 
J Cosgrove
6 years 9 months ago
Maybe things have changed over the years. I was an adjunct as well as a full time instructor at a couple universities. The adjuncts were one of three types of people.

The first was graduate students who were studying and trying to get their degree and would take adjunct positions at their own university where they were studying as well as at other universities in the area.  I didn't do this because I had a fellowship at one time and at another time I was teaching full time some place else.

The second was full time instructors who tried to make some extra bucks by teaching a night school class at another university or even an occasional day school course if it would fit in.  I did this a couple times.  I had three kids and needed the money but still had a full time job.

The third was people in industry who had a particular specialty and would teach a course that few at the school were capable of teaching.  I also did this once or twice after I stopped teaching full time.

None of them would be interested in any union because they were essentially part time employees and essentially contract employees.  Maybe someone could explain how those at Duquesne are different so we can understand why they would need a union.  Are unions now meant for part time employees?
Vince Killoran
6 years 9 months ago
It's not that easy to just move on to another profession.  I know lots of these good folks-they spend 10 or more years getting their Ph.D.s and then do a postdoc or a couple of fixed term appointments, hoping that the coveted tenure-track job opens.  They are into their 40s when they realize that it ain't going to happen.

A 45-50 year-old with a doctorate in Literature or History is not well-situated to compete.  They need more than a slap on the back and good wishes.  The one silver lining is that many are now forming unions.
Mary Kambic
6 years 9 months ago
I'm afraid that JR Cosgrove's view of adjuncts is outdated. As a community college adjunct at two schools, hoping to organize adjuncts into a labor union, I see another group represented: those who are adjuncting as their full-time job. These people are PhD's who are not being hired for full-time faculty positions, immigrant educators from other countries who are teaching at multiple colleges, and young people who are very dedicated to teaching and making a difference. 

We are all underpaid, without any benefits, and no job security. Most importantly, we are now the majority of college instructors in the United States. Colleges are getting a free ride from us and need to be accountable. Most students would be horrified to know their teachers qualify for food stamps. 

I have worked for several Catholic dioceses in family life over the years and know how the Church treats its employees. Badly. 


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