NLRB: Adjuncts in Religious Studies May Be Excluded From Religious College Unions

August 24, 2016

In addition to its major decision in favor of graduate student unions, the National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday ruled that instructors of religious studies may be excluded from part-time faculty unions at two Roman Catholic institutions. The two decisions, concerning St. Xavier University and Seattle University, respectively, reverse earlier regional board rulings that adjunct instructors in all disciplines at those institutions may form unions because they don’t perform specific religious functions. The regional board decisions were made in light of an earlier NLRB decision concerning Pacific Lutheran University, which paved the way for adjunct faculty unions at religious institutions.

William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said Tuesday’s decisions were notable because the exclusion of some faculty members but not others from collective bargaining had never previously been argued in relation to NLRB vs. Catholic Bishops of Chicago. That 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision asserts that faculty members at religious institutions aren’t entitled to collective bargaining under the labor relations act. “Nobody’s ever articulated that before,” Herbert said of the distinction.

“We find that the university holds [adjunct faculty in the department of religious studies] out ‘as performing a specific role in creating and maintaining the school’s religious educational environment,’” reads the NLRB’s decision on St. Xavier, quoting the board’s 2014 decision in favor of adjunct unions at religious colleges concerning Pacific Lutheran. Tuesday’s decision concerning Seattle used similar language and logic, but it applies to adjuncts in the institution's Department of Theology and Religious Studies, as well as the School of Theology and Ministry.

St. Xavier adjuncts are affiliated with the National Education Association, while those at Pacific Lutheran and Seattle University are affiliated with Service Employees International Union. A spokesperson for Seattle said the university was reviewing the decision and had no immediate comment. A spokesperson for St. Xavier was not immediately available for comment.

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