A 1980 Supreme Court decision  largely blocked the unionization of faculty members at private colleges and universities, based on the idea that they had so much power that they effectively were part of management. Adjuncts, however, can't be said to be part of management -- and several unions have scored victories not only organizing adjuncts  but winning key contract advances  for them at private colleges.
An organizing drive at Manhattan College has run into a different issue: the college, a Roman Catholic institution, is asserting that its religious heritage would be threatened by an adjunct union, which would give federal officials oversight over labor relations at the college, and that federal court rulings give it the right to bar collective bargaining. The union says that its effort to get better pay and benefits for adjuncts will have no impact at all on the college's religious mission -- and that if anyone is ignoring church teachings, it is the college administrators, in not seeing the social justice behind the union drive. The National Labor Relations Board is currently holding hearings on the dispute -- and the outcome (quite likely the subject of court challenges) could either expand or limit the potential for adjunct unions at private colleges.
While the dispute has been building for months now, the union is going public with petition drives  and the college is countering with public statements of its own  -- with both sides suggesting that the other is ignoring key principles.
"This is a college that talks about being committed to social justice. Well, its adjuncts need some social justice," said Julie Berman, an organizer for the New York State United Teachers, an affiliate of both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association that is organizing the adjuncts at Manhattan.
She said that adjuncts are seeking "better pay and benefits and job security -- traditional adjunct issues," not any change in the college's religious mission. And she noted that almost all of the nearly 200 adjuncts teach strictly secular subjects and that even those who teach religious studies tend to provide courses on a range of faiths. Paying the adjuncts more, she said, would have absolutely no impact on the college's theology, religious views or anything related to Catholicism.
"This is about adjuncts who know the difference a union makes," she said.
But Brennan O'Donnell, president of the college, sees the issues very differently. In a series of letters to those on the campus, the most recent coming this week, he argues that "the line of questioning being pursued by the NLRB and the union unfortunately betrays a serious lack of understanding of the Catholic nature of the college." He adds: "Our identity is not a set of easy labels or sound bites, nor a rigid set of facts, figures, and practices to be quantified and judged by the government acting as some sort of religious licensing board."
The application of federal labor law to education at religious institutions has been the subject of several key court decisions -- rulings that Manhattan cites as favoring its argument, but that the union says shouldn't apply to adjuncts who have no power or desire to change the college's religious ties.
In 1979, the Supreme Court ruled in NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago  that the NLRB could not authorize union elections for lay teachers at Catholic schools because doing so would create "a significant risk of infringement of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment if the act conferred jurisdiction over church-operated schools." The concern was that NLRB officials would become involved in disputes over policies at the schools.
Two subsequent rulings by federal appeals courts have rejected union drives for faculty members at the University of Great Falls,  a Catholic institution, and Carroll College,  a Presbyterian institution. Those institutions, like many religious colleges in the United States, have seen an evolution of their missions over the years, and today have many more faculty members and students who are not members of the sponsoring faiths than they did when they were founded. And in both cases, the unions seeking to organize faculty members argued that the colleges were not so religious that the dangers feared by the Supreme Court in 1979 were real risks.
But in both of those cases, the appeals courts said a college didn't need to be religious in every way to qualify for the exemption from federal labor law. In the Carroll case, for example, the court ruled that to be exempt as religious a college would need to describe itself as providing a religious education, be nonprofit, and be affiliated with a religious group.
Union leaders have been critical of the Carroll ruling as setting too low a bar and allowing essentially secular colleges that once had strong religious ties to invoke that history to keep unions out.
In the Manhattan case, the union is making several arguments. First, it is noting that adjunct unions can't change the religious nature of a college, and that religious colleges do not have to invoke their right to keep unions out. Just this year, for instance, adjuncts at St. Francis College, a Catholic institution in Brooklyn, voted to unionize  (also with NYSUT) -- and while union leaders said that the college considered invoking its religious ties to keep the union out, it didn't do so.
But the union goes on to make two other arguments -- one that questions whether Manhattan can meet even the religious test set by the Carroll decision (the subject of the ongoing NLRB hearings), and the other saying that it is morally wrong to invoke the decision.
A statement from the union  says: "We are not at all clear that the Carroll College decision would apply to Manhattan College and we intend to argue it if we need to at a hearing. But even if the labor board or an appeals court ultimately rules in favor of the college's position, that wouldn't make the decision right. We can all point to numerous legal precedents, interpretations, decisions and even laws that were simply wrong, some maliciously and tragically wrong like slavery or the Jim Crow laws of the last century, some not as life-altering but still just 'bad' case law, like the 'Yeshiva decision' of 1980 (which found that full-time faculty members at Yeshiva University were part of the management of the institution and, as such, were not entitled to union representation). We believe that the Carroll College decision (and any subsequent decisions that rely on Carroll College for legal precedents) falls into this latter category of bad case law."
And some Catholic scholars  argue that church-affiliated institutions should in fact welcome unions, consistent with church teachings about the dignity of labor.
Manhattan officials responded to inquiries about the college's positions by releasing various letters sent by the institution's president. In the most recent one, President O'Donnell writes that the NLRB and the union both know that the courts will back the college, and that the hearings being held now are already an infringement on the college's religious freedom.
"These hearings are focused on the question of whether or not Manhattan College is 'sufficiently Catholic' to be able to continue to operate free of the entanglement of a government agency inserting itself in the day to day operations of the college's relations with employees. Officials of the college have been testifying under oath in a federal government hearing room in lower Manhattan while a court reporter records their answers," O'Donnell writes.
"Among the many questions being asked by representatives of the union and the NLRB are which Christian Brothers currently work at the college, what positions each of them holds and how many Christian Brothers continue to be part of the college staff. There also have been questions as to how many of the Christian Brothers in the Manhattan College Christian Brothers' community attend college events such as convocations and whether participation in Mass, prayer and similar liturgical events are mandatory for staff and students. The college is being subjected to government scrutiny of its religious legitimacy."
The irony, according to O'Donnell, is that the college is being questioned because it embraces people of other faiths. "[T]he fact that we are a welcoming, pluralistic community is being presented as proof that we cannot be an authentic Catholic college," he says. "Questions about the number of brothers in various roles imply that the work of lay faculty, staff, and administrators is negligible in forwarding our mission, and betrays a complete incomprehension of a full generation's hard and faithful work in passing forward the charism of religious orders to lay colleagues."