Georgetown, Grad Student Union Set Aside Legal Fight, Opt for New Labor Relations Model

Also: Loyola University Chicago, Adjuncts Settle First Contract

For some time, it has looked like the Georgetown University administration and its graduate student teaching and research assistants were headed for a legal showdown at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The students said they were university employees and wanted to vote on union representation in an NLRB-certified election; the University said they were not workers but students and not covered by the NLRB. It had all the makings of an ugly labor dispute.

The university felt confident it had the stronger legal argument and would prevail. But then administrators realized: even if we win the legal case, we are still bound by Catholic Social Teaching, and CST is pretty clear about workers’ right to organize. With this in mind, they negotiated an agreement with the students to take a union vote supervised by an independent arbitrator. If the majority of the TAs and RAs voted for the union, the university would bargain with them.

In a recent Commonweal story, Georgetown’s Game-Changing Agreement, Georgetown University Professor Joe McCartin described how this came about, and why it could be a breakthrough for labor relations at Catholic colleges. As McCartin (a Catholic Labor Network board member) writes,

By agreeing to a union election supervised by a non-governmental entity, the American Arbitration Association, Georgetown has effectively declared that its principles are not hostage to the whims of the NLRB…. Whereas Catholic institutions [opposing adjunct unions] have grounded their opposition in the theory that the NLRB has no jurisdiction over instructors, the Georgetown precedent serves as a reminder that if they truly believe in the rights of workers to form unions, Catholic institutions are free to devise their own independent, non-governmental union-certification procedures in negotiation with those unions… One might even say of Georgetown that it has adapted the presupposition of St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises—the assumption that one’s dialogue partner holds their views in good faith—to the question of the graduate students’ employment. It has assumed the good faith of the assistants who feel strongly that they are essential employees of the university, and has promised that the institution is prepared to bargain with them as such should they choose a union.

This mechanism, already in use at multiple Catholic K-12 schools, offers a solution to another long-running legal dispute. While Catholic universities such as Georgetown and Trinity Washington have recognized the results when adjuncts voted for union representation in an NLRB election, some others have refused to do so, arguing that Catholic higher education is exempt from NLRB jurisdiction as a matter of freedom of religion. Representation determinations and bargaining outside the NLRB process would permit these institutions to model Catholic Social Teaching regarding workers’ rights without conceding any First Amendment rights. Will they follow Georgetown’s lead, and propose an alternative process to the adjuncts?

Loyola University Chicago: Georgetown wasn’t the only Jesuit University this month to witness a landmark in labor relations. Adjunct faculty at LUC voted for union representation by SEIU Local 73 in January 2016. After two years of long and sometimes heated bargaining, and even a short strike, the university and its adjuncts reached their first contract. The contract increases pay and job security for non-tenured faculty. Both groups expressed satisfaction with the result.