The conflict between some Roman Catholic colleges and adjunct professors seeking collective bargaining rights is intensifying.
Last week, the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that adjuncts at St. Xavier University were entitled to vote on a union,  and that the university lacked enough of a religious character to be exempt from provisions of federal labor law.
The ruling is the second this year in which an NLRB regional office has rejected the claims of Roman Catholic colleges that they can prevent adjunct unions. In both the dispute at St. Xavier and one at Manhattan College,  officials of the NLRB reviewed the ties of Catholic orders to the colleges and found that the institutions were largely secular.
Both union organizers and Catholic colleges say that with a second ruling, the stakes are growing -- given that there are many Catholic colleges with adjunct instructors, but without unions.
Union leaders say that the adjuncts want better pay and benefits, job security and a meaningful role in decision making, and that they have no intention of challenging religious teachings or practices.
"It's ridiculous" for St. Xavier to try to block the union, when the work of the adjuncts "is secular," said Tom Suhrbur, the Illinois Education Association/National Education Association organizer working with the adjuncts. "They haven't had a raise in five years while tuition has gone up. That's what this is about," he said. Referring to the Catholic order with which the university is affiliated, Suhrbur added that "the Sisters of Mercy should have mercy on us."
St. Xavier officials declined to be interviewed about the case, but released a statement from Christine Wiseman, the president. "Our rationale for pursuing this issue is that no institution cedes jurisdiction over important matters to a third party without raising legitimate constitutional concerns that have been recognized by the federal courts in a series of decisions on this same question," she said.
Representatives of Catholic colleges said that the cases are already creating government interference with religion. "I think the social teaching of the church respects human work and recognizes the right of employees to organize, but it's a matter of principle for some Catholic institutions whether it is they or the government that determines whether they are Catholic -- and that's the point we are making," said Elizabeth B. Meers, one of the Washington lawyers who filed a brief  backing Manhattan College's appeal on behalf of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the Lasallian Association of College and University Presidents, and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.
The U.S. Supreme Court and other courts have put strict limits on unionization at religious organizations, citing the potential for collective bargaining overseen by the NLRB to become involved in religious disputes. NLRB officials did not question that doctrine in the Manhattan and St. Xavier cases, asking instead whether the colleges were Catholic enough to invoke it.
In last week's ruling, the NLRB's Chicago office noted a number of facts to suggest that St. Xavier can't be considered a religious institution, even though the university regularly cites its Catholic heritage:
- The Sisters of Mercy, the founding order, is guaranteed only four seats on a board that is set at 25-30 members.
- The articles of incorporation, last amended in 1993, do "not contain any reference to religion, God, Catholicism" but speak "only to the purpose of education."
- The university's budget is not derived from religious groups. St. Xavier receives about 93 percent of its revenue from tuition, with some additional money from donations and through various operations, including what the NLRB ruling called a saloon.
- The university does not have religious requirements for students or faculty members.
- Adjunct hiring does not involve consideration of candidates' faiths.
- Students are not required to study Catholicism. (While students must take two courses in religious studies, the classes can focus on any religion.)
While St. Xavier would point to various ways it affirms its Catholic ties, the reason many Catholic colleges are alarmed at the NLRB rulings is because their institutions have intentionally welcomed non-Catholic students and faculty members, broadened their boards beyond members of founding orders, and so forth. Catholic higher education leaders (while sometimes facing criticism from traditionalists for such an approach) say that their inclusive philosophy is one reflection of Catholic teaching, not evidence of secularism.
At the same time, other Catholic thinkers  argue that the religious colleges could avoid the scrutiny by recognizing the union rights of workers, which is what these individuals say would be most consistent with church teachings.
Union leaders also see the issue as crucial. Tenure-track faculty are largely off-limits to union drives at private colleges, under a 1980 Supreme Court ruling.  But adjunct faculty members are not covered by that ruling, and unions have found adjuncts at private colleges who want collective bargaining. If any college with religious ties of any kind could bar collective bargaining by adjuncts, many more would lose union rights than those at St. Xavier or Manhattan.
Suhrbur, of the Illinois Education Association, said adjuncts at St. Xavier earn $2,300 a course, and that negotiating a raise would have no impact on religion. If the NLRB decision stands, he said, "this would open up a lot of opportunities elsewhere -- not just at Catholic colleges, but at all kinds of institutions in the area that have ties to various churches."
But that could be a ways off. The full NLRB currently has the appeal from Manhattan College pending, and Manhattan has been backed in the case not only by Catholic colleges, but by other religious groups  as well, including the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and the Association of Christian Schools International, which want to be assured that they can bar unions.
Any ruling by the NLRB could eventually be reviewed in federal courts, meaning that a long legal battle may be getting started.