- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 13, 2020

A federal appeals court ruling that a Catholic university in Pittsburgh does not have to recognize a faculty union has sparked concern about collective bargaining agreements for faculty and staff at Catholic colleges across the country.

“It should never have gotten that far,” Father Sinclair Oubre, founder of the Catholic Labor Network, said of last month’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. “Just because the [National Labor Relations Board] says they don’t have rights under the NLRB doesn’t mean that there isn’t a higher law calling for these workers to have rights.”

A three-judge panel reversed an NLRB decision, allowing Duquesne University in Pittsburgh to continue to refuse to negotiate with a union formed by adjunct faculty nearly a decade ago. The university invoked its Catholic foundation (by priests with the Congregation of the Holy Spirit) as its defense.

The NLRB “lacks jurisdiction if the school holds itself out to the public as a religious institution,” Judge Thomas B. Griffith wrote for the majority in the Jan. 29 ruling. Asking the federal agency to determine whether adjunct professors teaching the theology of English contributed to Duquesne’s religious nature would violate the university’s First Amendment liberties, Judge Griffith wrote.

Duquesne officials said the conclusion of the eight-year legal battle does not mean the school will end its relationship with adjunct professors.

“The University looks forward to working with our adjuncts, and indeed with all of our faculty and staff, to identify the right solutions for our wonderful community of scholars, teachers, and learners in the context of our unique mission,” a spokesperson said in a written statement. “Our Catholic and Spiritan mission requires nothing less.”

Several leading Catholics, such as the editorial board of the National Catholic Reporter, have criticized the university for invoking religious liberty to immunize itself from labor laws. The editorial board said it could “appreciate” keeping the government out of religious affairs but argued that Duquesne was “not exercising the Catholic faith, nor acting in accord with a sincerely held religious tenet, when it refused to allow its workers to unionize.”

Catholic supporters of organized labor noted that Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin started the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s and that staff at Catholic institutions such as Georgetown, Loyola and Forham universities have benefited as a result.

“We trace [labor rights] to Pope Leo XIII,” Father Oubre told The Washington Times. “This is part of our faith tradition It’s really simple, actually. Are these teachers workers? If so, they deserve rights.”

Still, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, cheered the court ruling in favor of Duquesne. The association, which represents roughly 250 Catholic school across the country, said the NLRB’s decision to require recognition of the teachers union unfairly narrowed the university’s determination of who is a part of the campus’ religious mission.

“Our faculty are invited to show students the faith-based motivations of famous artists, composers, writers, economists, political theorists, philosophers and more,” the association said in a written statement. “No government office should ever have the power to decide, department-by-department, course-by-course, which ones are doing the Church’s work and which ones are not.”

So far, the fate of other employee associations at Catholic universities is unclear. More than three dozen Catholic colleges have union representation, according to the Catholic Labor Network. However, the vast majority are organizations of kitchen and janitorial workers under the Service Employer International Union. Very few unions represent tenured faculty, in large part due to the religious exceptions from labor laws any faith-based school may enjoy.

Adjunct faculty — non-tenured professors whose contracts are contingent upon enrollment figures — increasingly are seeking to bargain collectively as their numbers grow at colleges.

In 2012, 88 adjunct professors in the liberal arts college at Duquesne voted to unionize via a petition with the United Steelworkers union. The school refused to negotiate, citing its exception as a religious organization.

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