St Leo’s Announces Intent to Bust Faculty Union

Up until now, St. Leo’s University in central Florida bore witness to an important element of Catholic Social Teaching – the right of workers to organize – by bargaining with a union representing its faculty. No more. In a surprise move, the Board of Trustees recently decided to withdraw recognition from the faculty union, citing their exemption as a religious institution from coverage of the National Labor Relations Act.

As a matter of civil law, the university is not required to bargain with a union representing its employees. Catholic social teaching is another matter. Since the first modern Papal Social Encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891), the Church has taught that workers have the right to organize in unions. In his letter Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed this teaching, concluding that “The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must be honoured today even more than in the past [25].”

While the National Labor Relations Act exempts religious institutions from its protections, Catholic social teaching offers no such exemption. Lest there be any confusion on this point, the US Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on the Economy in 1986 (Economic Justice for All) explicitly stated that “all church institutions must fully recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively with the institution through whatever association or organization they freely choose [353].”

The expansive freedom enjoyed by religious institutions under the First Amendment is a great gift, but it is subject to abuse. Managers and administrators in all institutions – civil or religious, for-profit and non-profit – prefer to issue orders rather than bargain with representatives of their employees. It is to be expected that they will be tempted to do away with unions when possible and substitute their own judgment and authority in place of negotiating with their employees in pursuit of the common good. The civil law provides at least some restraint for employers at for-profit institutions; not so in the case of religious institutions.

The trustees of St. Leo’s, and others who use the impunity guaranteed by the First Amendment to evade their obligations under Catholic social teaching, bring our cherished right to religious freedom into ill repute.

5 replies
  1. Stephen Barrows
    Stephen Barrows says:

    My youngest son attends St. Leo university. As a former vice president of the Boston Metro Local of the American Postal Workers I am disgusted with this action. My daughter also graduated from this institution 3 years ago.
    We can no longer support this institution and will be a vocal force in persuading them to reconsider.

  2. Tony Spence
    Tony Spence says:

    St. Leo’s Board of Trust is correct that as a U.S. religious institution it is exempt from the obligation to abide by the NLRB. But it is not exempt from the obligation to abide by Catholic social teaching. It still must do right by the university faculty.

    In college and university systems, faculty have great influence on policy and governance through the Faculty Senate, but these bodies have little sway on university employment practices. Regular faculty are usually protected by the imperfect tenure system. However adjuncts are usually regarded little better than day-old chopped liver. There is a very good case for faculty unions.

    As a former director of a union shop, I found, he hard way on my part, that a much more successful and ultimately satisfying practice is to welcome labor organization and work with it as a partner in fulfilling the mission of the agency or, in this case, the university. What is there to lose?

    In my area of the country, our political leaders once stood on philosophical and statutory reasons to allegedly protect the integrity of states’ rights, but the real reason was to protect the insidious institution of slavery. It was an immoral strategy.

    Labor rights and slavery are not the same thing. But the thinking of St. Leo’s Board of Trust is not so different.

  3. Claudea Heise
    Claudea Heise says:

    Sadly, just another example of division in our church and our country. It seems that half of the Church is against the Popes (particularly don’t base your vote on one issue) and our social justice doctrine. I pray for unity in our church and calling the people back to social justice for all.

  4. Katie S.
    Katie S. says:

    Has there been any development in this story since November? It seems like it should be getting more attention on social media. I haven’t heard anything about this on “CatholicTwitter,” where I’m pretty active, which makes me think there is opportunity for elevating this issue further.

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