Under the National Labor Relations Act, most private-sector workers in the United States enjoy the protection of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) when they seek to form a union. If their employer fires or writes them up for supporting the union, they can get relief from the Board; if a majority of workers votes for a union, the Board certifies them as the representatives and the employer is obliged to negotiate a contract. Although these protections are stronger on paper than in practice, they do exist.
That is, unless you teach at a religious college or university. On June 10 the NLRB reversed a previous decision (Pacific Lutheran) holding that adjunct faculty outside of religion and theology departments had a legally protected right to organize in unions. In Bethany College, the Board ruled that the school’s religious identity shields them from legal consequences if they fire union supporters or refuse to bargain with a union formed by the adjunct faculty. This does not forbid workers from forming a union and bargaining, but whether their efforts succeed now depend largely on the goodwill of the employer.
How will Catholic colleges and universities respond? Catholic social teaching hasn’t changed – Catholic doctrine has taught that workers have the right to organize since Pope Leo’s Encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, and the US Bishops stated clearly that this right extends to employees of Catholic institutions in their 1986 Pastoral Letter Economic Justice for All. But those Catholic institutions with unions – or with workers trying to organize – will surely be tempted to use their new legal impunity to dominate rather than bargain with their workers.
Indeed, some Catholic colleges such as Duquesne, Manhattan and Seattle University, have been refusing for years to bargain with union representatives elected by their adjuncts and invoking their religious freedom to do so. I fear that the NLRB decision will inspire those who have adhered to Catholic teaching and recognized adjunct unions heretofore to adopt the same line.
In a separate but related development, two weeks ago St Xavier University did just that. After 40 years of bargaining with a union representing full-time, tenured faculty, SXU announced that it would no longer do so. These workers were left unprotected by a different legal decision (Yeshiva, which ruled that tenured professors were managers, outside of the scope of the NLRA).
In the first reading last weekend, the feast of Corpus Christi, Moses explained that the LORD had let the Israelites wander in the desert so as to test their hearts, and learn whether they intended to keep his commandments (Deut 8:2). This NLRB decision has left Catholic college employees in a labor rights desert, but the test will be for college administrators: do they intend to manage their institutions in accordance with Catholic Social Teaching or not?