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Union busting for God: Catholic colleges invoke ‘religious freedom’ exception to block employee union organizing

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The 2013 death of 83-year-old Duquesne University adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko helped open up a national debate about the precarious lives of the estimated seven hundred thousand college faculty in America who teach without benefits or security of employment, often at the same pitiful wages that drove Vojtko to sleep in her office while she battled cancer.

While Duquesne faced national criticism after Vojtko’s death, less discussed was the fact that, as a Catholic college run by the Spiritan religious order, Duquesne’s mission statement, which includes “profound concern for moral and spiritual values,” appears not to extend to its contingent faculty. Duquesne has repeatedly engaged in legal battles to block its adjuncts from forming a union with the United Steelworkers (USW) invoking the so-called “religious freedom” exception.

This article is reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. Follow RD on Facebook or Twitter for daily updates.

Unions, which provide adjuncts with better wages, more job security and in some cases health insurance, would seem to fall right in line with Catholic teaching on social justice. But the religious freedom argument has also been made at Loyola Chicago, Seattle University, DePaul University, and many other Catholic colleges, where the religious orders who run these schools argue that allowing faculty to unionize would pose a threat to their religious mission.

Arguments about religious freedom’s impact on teaching unions go back to 1979, when high school faculty at “minor seminaries”—diocesan high schools where students were expected to eventually train as priests – took their case for unionizing to the National Labor Relations Board, where it was determined that “church operated schools” are outside of the jurisdiction of the NLRB. More recently, DePaul president Rev. Dennis Holtschneider described this religious freedom exception as the “right of Catholic universities to apply our own conception of our religious-educational mission,” which “depends on the rich, meaningful and ancient integration of faith and reason in education.”

But, as Villanova University Christian ethics professor Gerald Beyer and attorney Donald Carrol wrote in the National Catholic Reporter last year, while the NLRB is reluctant to force Catholic institutions to do something contrary to church teaching, “when a Catholic university abridges the right to unionize of its adjunct faculty, it violates its own tradition’s teaching.”

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In an email, Beyer said that “Catholic social teaching is unequivocal: workers have the right to unionize and to choose the union they want to represent them. A number of Catholic colleges and universities have recognized this right in recent years.” Georgetown University, for example, where adjuncts unionized with SEIU in 2013, has a working committee where adjuncts regularly meet with administrators to discuss labor issues, which Beyer says shows that unions and administrators can “successfully work together to recognize the rights of adjunct faculty members and promote the good of the institution.”

But at other Catholic colleges, according to Beyer, resistance to unions may be a symptom of the fact that “administrators, faculty, staff, and students need to better understand how protecting workers’ rights fits into the mission of Catholic colleges and universities.” Schools with administrative resistance to unionizing “need to devote more attention to how Catholic social teaching should shape the policies and practices of our own institutions.”

Robin Sowards, who was involved in the first unionizing committee at Duquesne and now works as an organizer with the USW, says that Duquesne’s continued resistance to unionization “is in plain violation of Canon Law.” Canon 1246 states that Catholic schools are to “observe meticulously also the civil laws concerning labor and social policy, according to the principles handed on by the Church.” Soward states that violating this canon means that “Duquesne is acting, not only in defiance of the laws of the United States of America, but in defiance of the laws of the Catholic Church.” And USW itself, Sowards adds, was founded by a devout Catholic.

An adjunct at DePaul University who asked to remain anonymous pointed out a letter he wrote to the school newspaper, in which he noted that DePaul’s administration has tried “to undermine and deter unionizing efforts, through both subtle and obvious methods, using unhelpful innuendo and scare tactics in their addresses to faculty, borrowing moves from a standard anti-union playbook.” Instead of allowing unionization, DePaul created an “adjunct faculty task force” that would bargain on behalf of adjuncts, but “without any legal obligation for the administration to act on the results of these negotiations or any incentive to maintain any changes that are made.”

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According to the adjunct I interviewed, SEIU, the union working at DePaul, “saw a losing battle” and backed out when DePaul began to make the same religious freedom arguments used at Duquesne and other schools. Additionally, concerns that a Trump administration’s NLRB would be more sympathetic to religious freedom arguments than Obama’s, has led to a collapse of the union drive at DePaul, where sixty percent of faculty are non-tenured.

DePaul is administered by the Congregation of the Mission, more commonly known as the Vincentians, after their founder St. Vincent de Paul. The Vincentian founder is popularly known as the “Great Apostle of Charity,” which makes DePaul’s resistance to adjunct organizing all the more ironic, since at least a quarter of adjuncts are so poorly remunerated that they qualify for Medicaid or food stamps.

The greater glory of the bottom line

The powerhouse religious order of Catholic higher education is the Jesuits, who run twenty-eight colleges and universities throughout the USA. Tuition and fees at Jesuit colleges range from $47,317 at Fordham University to $28, 030 at Wheeling Jesuit University. While many Jesuit colleges do offer generous financial aid, treatment of adjunct faculty is not always in line with their motto, Ad Majorem Dei Glorium, for the greater glory of God. A survey by Faculty Forward revealed that Jesuit colleges employ contingent faculty at an average of 57 percent, which is lower than the national average of 65 percent, but still problematic for a religious order whose most famous member decries materialist greed on a regular basis.

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At Jesuit run Seattle University, adjuncts voted to form a union in 2014, but according to the Seattle Times, “ballots were locked up” while the university appealed to the NLRB on religious freedom grounds. According to Seattle University professor Emily Lieb, in April of 2015, “some 20 faculty, students, and allies were arrested in an act of civil disobedience near campus to protest the hypocrisy of a Jesuit institution’s efforts to block faculty unionization, especially on the grounds that unionization is somehow counter to SU’s Catholic identity.”

“The administration’s argument that a union would undermine SU’s religious identity is disingenuous and dangerous,” says Lieb, because using the university’s religious identity to “trample” on the rights of faculty to unionize misrepresents Catholic teaching on labor. But, she adds, attempts to prevent a union are also pragmatic: Seattle University does not “pay a living wage to their adjunct faculty, and they do not want to.”

The university lost their case four times at both regional and national levels, but Seattle University president Stephen Sundborg said in 2016 he expected the case to go as far as the Supreme Court. According to Sundborg, the university is “taking a stand” against the NLRB. The NLRB and a union could require the university to “hire faculty openly hostile to our Jesuit way of teaching and Catholic identity,” and make it harder to “remove a faculty member who seeks to undermine our core religious identity.”

Loyola Chicago also objected to an SEIU union on religious grounds, stating that it has the right to “govern our institution in accordance with our values and beliefs, free from government entanglement.” Between 2004 and 2014, Loyola Chicago tripled its number of contingent faculty, while tuition rose by 73 percent.

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However, even though the union passed at Loyola Chicago, theology faculty were blocked from joining by the NLRB, which made an exception because theology was seen to be directly involved in religious education (this exception was also made at Seattle University according to Lieb and other sources). According to Loyola theology instructor Teresa Calpino, this decision was the result of “not really understanding fully what it is that a theology department does as opposed to someone who works in pastoral studies.” She added that “we don’t have any sort of religious test of who can teach in the department.”

Attempting to reclassify theology faculty as ministers by claiming they’re involved in religious education is a slippery slope. In 2015, San Francisco archbishop Salvatore Cordileone garnered national criticism for attempting to do just that in the San Francisco diocesan schools, which would have also required teachers to follow a “morality clause,” meaning that they would obey church teachings even outside of the classroom. The San Francisco archdiocese eventually dropped the effort, but reclassifying theology faculty and graduate students in this manner means not only that they’ll be blocked from unionizing, but that they could also face greater moralistic scrutiny.

Against God

In spite of the ongoing problems at many Catholic college in efforts towards adjunct rights, there are some signs of positive change. Fordham president Joseph McShane issued a public letter on May 19th stating that the university would not oppose adjunct unionization. McShane explained that “organized labor has deep roots in Catholic social justice teachings,” and that Fordham has a “special duty in this area” due to its “historic connection to first-generation and working-class students.”

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Sister Aaron Winkleman, who teaches at Dominican University—founded by Dominican women religious in 1890—says that adjuncts at Dominican ratified their first collective bargaining agreement with the university last year. She adds that “an institution’s being Catholic doesn’t in any way preclude that institution from unionizing. On the contrary, a Catholic institution should be promoting unions, which are an effective means of social justice.”

At my own alma mater, Saint Mary’s College of California, a contract between the school and SEIU was ratified in 2016. In 2014, when adjuncts first began the unionizing process, college president James Donahue wrote in an open letter that “the decision to unionize or not rests entirely with our contingent faculty and is theirs alone to make as they consider what is best for themselves and their families.” Donahue, who trained as an ethicist, also added that adjuncts had a right to be fully informed, and that the college would aim to be as transparent as possible in the process.

This is a fairly significant shift from the previous situation adjuncts at Saint Mary’s found themselves in. When I taught there in the early 2000s, there was no talk of a union, and salaries were so low adjuncts juggled multiple teaching jobs at other schools, and often another job that would provide benefits. At the end of each semester, we’d be notified by mail that either we were no longer needed (with no reason given), or that we were hired back, though only at the last minute, making the juggling of jobs even more difficult. We had no private office space, yet we were expected to hold office hours frequently in order to secure better course evaluations to increase our chances of being re-hired. It was untenable, so I left for Berkeley, where I’m a continuing lecturer, a more secure teaching position created by unionization, and have health insurance, better job protections, and retirement.

Unionization is not a magic bullet. Unionized contingent faculty are still contingent, and it has been difficult to make tenured faculty sympathetic to the problems faced by their non-tenured colleagues. But as the gig economy becomes normalized and colleges adapt a merciless corporate model at the expense of both students and faculty, unions can still offer protections that would not otherwise exist. And for Catholic colleges making every effort to prevent contingent faculty from unionizing, Pope Francis has some strong words of advice. In 2013, he told a group of unemployed Italians that when it comes to employers, “not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at how to make a profit, that goes against God.”

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