What Part of 'the Right to Organize' Don't Some Religious Institutions Understand?
Joshua Davis’s two-year-old son has congenital talipes equinovarus, or club foot, and the treatment requires him to wear specialized orthopedic shoes to bed. He recently outgrew his current shoes and needs a new pair. However, the health insurance that covers him comes through his father’s position as an assistant professor of systematic theology at General Theological Seminary, an Episcopal institution in New York City. And his father is among eight of the seminary’s ten full-time faculty who were dimissed on September 30. The seminary has stopped paying into Dr. Davis’s insurance policy. He’s not sure whether he can get a new pair without coverage.
The events that led to this situation are shocking to Dr. Davis and baffling to many outsiders. The sequence of documents from both the so-called “GTS 8” and the seminary’s trustees don’t especially help. The faculty members expressed grievances alleging racist, sexst and otherwise discriminatory behavior from the dean, the Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle. They also claim that he tried to prevent faculty members from meeting together without him.
When they deemed the trustees’ response inadequate, the eight signatories of the intial complaint announced a walkout in protest, demanding a meeting with the trustees. The walkout would take place on Friday, Sept. 26, when there weren’t classes anyway, and they expected that they’d be back to work on Monday without disrupting the academic schedule. They announced this action in the rhetorical and legal idiom of collective bargaining:
[W]e wish to advise the members of the Board of Trustees that we have exercised our lawful right to organize collectively by establishing The General Theological Seminary Faculty Union. We have ratiﬁed bylaws, elected ofﬁcers and have initiated the process of registering our Union with all necessary governmental authorities. We have also retained legal counsel. Any further negotiations of these matters will be through our Union and in consultation with our attorney.
The matter wasn’t resolved that weekend as they’d hoped. Instead, the following Tuesday, the trustees announced that, “after much prayer and deliberation,” they had “voted with great regret to accept the resignations of eight members of the Seminary faculty.” No resignations, of course, had been submitted. The walkout was a protest, an act of worker organizing that is supposed to be protected under the law and upheld by the Christian commitment to the dignity of workers.
The actions of GTS’s trustees could be mistaken for an isolated case of wilfull misunderstanding, but they are not. The current issue of The Catholic Worker includes a report by Manhattan College professor Joseph Fahey on the state of labor organizing in Catholic higher education, and he documents similarly eggregious tactics to prevent educators from organizing:
[A]djuncts at some Catholic universities (including Duquesne, Loyola Marymount, Manhattan, and Seattle) who seek to join unions are met with Trustee-filed objections to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) which allege that federally sponsored elections violate the “religious freedom” of these Catholic institutions. The Trustees insist that they are not anti-union but these objections amount to union busting because adjuncts have to wait years before a federal NLRB decision due to the filing of a great many amicus curiae briefs and other delaying tactics that result in justice delayed and, therefore, denied.
This is not the case everywhere. Adjuncts have successfully formed unions at Catholic schools like Georgetown, Le Moyne and St. Francis College in Brooklyn. But in other cases, the willful misuse of religious freedom — an area of law that Catholic leaders have lately sought to extend on matters of conscience — is very much akin to the behavior of GTS’s trustees. Union-busting is no more an exercise of religious freedom than a walkout is a resignation, and everyone knows it. Need we recall Economic Justice for All: “No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself.”
At present, the immediate situation doesn’t look good for Dr. Davis and his colleagues. Higher-ups in their church have been lining up against them. In a statement to America, the GTS 8 say:
Even now, as we have lost our jobs for continuing to plead that these matters be addressed honorably, we cannot believe that our Presiding Bishop, the entire House of Bishops, and the good people who serve as trustees of GTS truly intend to punish those who have brought these issues to their attention. Nor do we think that they actually want to support and defend an environment of fear and anxiety that so many have told us they experience as humiliating. If they did intend to do these things, what message are they sending to Episcopal clergy and lay persons? What would this say about the church’s respect for the vulnerable all around our country? What would this say about the moral conscience of our church’s leaders?
This crisis is not GTS’s alone. It is a crisis for any community of faith in which cherished rights are being twisted into excuses for repression.