Adjunct Professors Seek Union Representation

Whether inspired by Catholic social teaching or rulings by the National Labor Relations Board, Catholic colleges and universities will eventually sit down with their adjunct faculty members to negotiate wages and working conditions. That’s the consensus of union organizers involved in securing collective bargaining rights for adjunct and contingent faculty at religious institutions.

“Catholic social teaching is quite explicit about the importance of labor unions. The church has an obligation to not interfere and to propagate them,” said Robin Sowards. He is a member of the Adjunct Faculty Association, a group formed by Duquesne University faculty and associated with the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh. Duquesne University is one of three Catholic schools that have appealed N.L.R.B. decisions to allow adjunct faculty to unionize. The others are Manhattan College in Bronx, N.Y., and Saint Xavier University in Chicago.


A Supreme Court decision in 1979 (N.L.R.B. v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago) and subsequent judicial and administrative determinations held that religious schools and colleges are exempt from the labor board’s jurisdiction. Nonetheless, adjunct faculty have appealed to regional offices of the N.L.R.B. to allow union groups to represent them.

According to Modern Language Association statistics for 2009, the latest data available, adjuncts comprised 53 percent of the faculty at Manhattan and 62 percent at both Duquesne and Saint Xavier. Alan Trevithick, an adjunct at Fordham University in New York, is a founding member of New Faculty Majority. According to Trevithick, adjuncts receive one-third of tenure-track faculty compensation and work without benefits or job security.

“Schools don’t want to confront the ethical reality of this,” he said. “It devalues the whole notion of higher education and it’s not sustainable.” Trevithick, who also teaches anthropology and sociology at non-Catholic schools, said there is no difference between the way he is treated at Catholic and non-Catholic schools. “I feel equally exploited,” he laughed.

There is no active campaign to form an adjunct union at Fordham, Trevithick said, but he predicted there will be more attempts on Catholic campuses. “Adjuncts are part of the teaching majority and they have equal or better rights than their full-time colleagues to put together a collective bargaining unit. It’s inevitable that you’ll see attempts to organize,” he said.

The N.L.R.B. and the three Catholic schools awaiting rulings on their appeals disagreed on key points. The schools pointed to their religious affiliations, but the labor board said it found the institutions to be largely secular.

“This is not about religion. It’s about preventing the most poorly paid employees [from being] represented by a union,” said Sowards, who teaches English and linguistics at Duquesne. “To say that as a Catholic university you’re too Catholic for the government but not Catholic enough to follow your own teachings is profoundly hypocritical.”

Adjunct faculty at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., won union representation quickly and without resistance from the administration, according to David Rodich, executive director of Local 500 of Service Employees International Union. “The university was very constructive in its view and took a neutral stance with respect to unionization,” he said. “Georgetown chose to adhere to the principles of Catholic social teaching, including the right to form a union.”

Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Washington-based Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said that Catholic colleges and universities respect and support the moral rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively, but reject the jurisdiction of the N.L.R.B.

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5 years 4 months ago
There is, today, a sad, related, follow up to this story: Margaret Mary Vojtko, a Duquense Adjunct who died penniless under very tragic circumstances and whose story deserves consideration.


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