Laboring in Education

Based on their faith, Roman Catholic colleges should not oppose the unionization of adjuncts, writes Paul Dinter.

April 25, 2011

In a way that Roman Catholic educational pioneers such as Ignatius Loyola or John Baptiste de La Salle could never have imagined, colleges and universities today have been transformed from essentially charitable endeavors to merchants in an increasingly competitive marketplace. As such, they necessarily elbow one another, seeking prestige and status, building shiny new lifestyle facilities and, when they can afford it, hiring away faculty stars to twinkle in their academic firmament.

A generation or two into this changed landscape, an institution like Manhattan College, where I am an adjunct in religious studies, struggles to retain its original collaborative values while needing to sell its educational product in a buyers' market. Getting the balance right has significant moral implications for its collective soul.

For when colleges become self-interested market actors, they join the societal shift away from fostering the communitarian values that even Adam Smith, the Apostle of capitalism, saw as a necessary counterbalance to a freewheeling market economy. In his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith called for counterbalancing our natural ambition and competitive striving with an empathetic observing conscience. He called this agent of balance an "impartial spectator" that would help guarantee a decent society in which the products of individual labor could be fairly traded. For left up to nature alone, the laboring classes drift toward indentured servitude, unable to bargain for or receive the fair exchange for their service that befits moral decency.

One cannot help but wonder, then, what such an impartial spectator might make today of a Catholic institution of higher education, expressly committed to "social justice," waging an expensive legal struggle to prevent its numerous adjunct faculty from bargaining collectively as a union.

Such a conscientious observer would, I expect, be wondering why Manhattan College is turning its back on more than 100 years of Catholic social teaching and its recognition that, for individuals to be able to trade their labor fairly, they can and should do so "in solidarity" with their fellows. For without unions, individuals remain outmatched whether they are in the mines, on the assembly line, or in classrooms. One by one, they cannot benefit from the checks and balances that help assure that the "invisible hand" of the market does not ride roughshod over the less powerful.

Thus "solidarity" for workers has been seen as a natural, moral outgrowth of the ancient Christian notion of koinonia, of "communion" that helps us overcome our natural tendency to self-serving individualism. At least that is the way that Karol WojtyÅ‚a saw it, and, when he became Pope John Paul II, he programmed that notion into the body of social teaching that began to develop 90 years earlier with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum ("On Revolutions") back in 1891.

In John Paul’s own encyclical Laborem Exercens ("On Human Work"), he made it clear that in the historical conflict between labor and employers, the Catholic church has always held to the principle of the priority of labor. This follows from the moral orientation of capital, or private equity, to the common good, a principal that nonprofit organizations have often exempted themselves from as if the lack of a formal profit motive removed them from the exigencies of social justice.

But in setting out the rights of workers, then, the pope also wrote of the social evil of underemployment when workers do not receive the kind of payment for their labor that allows them to maintain a family and provide for some future security. And in this context, he explicitly promoted the right of association by which workers could form unions, a right he broadly construed because he wanted to assure that social justice and the common good be promoted as widely as possible.

Observing the academic marketplace today, as a venue for the fair trading of academic labor, an impartial spectator might well ask, "Who is less powerful and more naturally the subject of the right to association than individual adjunct faculty members?" For collectively adjunct faculty members know that they represent a labor force without which American higher education could not function for a day.

But as individuals, they have little choice but to trade their labor inequitably. Like medieval tradesmen not members of a guild, they ply their trade singly, selling their skills door-to-door, armed with the dignity of their intellectual commitments, their other-than-academic experience, and their calling to teach. But individually they have no fellows, no community to call their own or to take their part.

Now in a purely Dickensian model of the educational marketplace, one might observe, "That’s the way the cookie crumbles!" But this lone purveyor of religious studies wishes to inquire whether a Catholic institution of higher education should not be held to a higher standard. Should it be expected to shelter behind a screen of its Catholic identity to exempt it from a least common denominator standard of social justice promoted by the National Labor Relations Board? A reading of Catholic social teaching suggests otherwise to me.

As would a reading of the surpassing standard of justice urged by Jesus in his most challenging sermon. That standard hardly ranks as minimal, but rather as maximal, excessive even. Turning the other check, walking the extra mile, and giving your shirt as well as the coat they sued you for (Matthew 5: 39-41) do not counsel surrender; they reveal a different and challenging standard of justice that the marketplace has yet to come close to absorbing. And while even an observant conscience might not apply such a standard in all circumstances, for Manhattan College to employ a phalanx of lawyers to stop adjunct faculty from associating as a union to improve their livelihood seems to fall far below what the Author of the above-referenced sermon might expect.


Paul Dinter is adjunct professor of religious studies at Manhattan College.


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