Community Organizing

Is Duquesne University Religiously Exempt from Bargaining with Faculty?


By Neil Cosgrove

This piece originally appeared in the May 2015 of the NewPeople in-print publication. Update to come in the May 2017 issues of the NewPeople. 

In refusing to bargain with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)-recognized Duquesne University (DU) chapter of the Adjunct Faculty Association-United Steelworkers (AFA-USW), the DU administration claims that doing so would “risk bargaining away the core tenets of our [religious] mission,” as President Charles Dougherty put it in a letter posted on the university’s website.

Is Dougherty’s argument expressing a legitimate matter of conscience? Or is the university simply delaying bargaining with its adjuncts in the hope the union will become discouraged and disband? The inconsistent and clearly disingenuous set of tactics employed by DU so far would suggest the latter.

Unions bargaining with Catholic educational institutions consistently point to the church’s social teaching as a key “tenet” of the faith, a tenet DU and a few other universities (Seattle, St. Xavier, and Manhattan College) disregard by refusing to bargain with faculty unions. “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,” American bishops bluntly stated in a 1986 pastoral letter entitled “Economic Justice for All.”

In fact, a narrow 1979 Supreme Court ruling exempted teachers in “parochial schools” from coverage by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. It is problematic to consider Catholic universities “parochial,” since they also have a “mission” to “permit a level of free inquiry not suitable to elementary or secondary education,” as a recent article in America put it.

Moreover, many parish and diocesan schools throughout America have taken seriously the bishops’ admonition that “all the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the church and its agencies and institutions” and chosen to bargain with faculty unions outside the framework of the NLRB. The Pittsburgh Diocese itself signed a five-year contract in April, 2014 with the Federation of Pittsburgh Diocesan Teachers, covering pay, benefits and working conditions for lay teachers in eight diocesan high schools. The contract does contain a clause that gives the bishop the “prerogative to dismiss a teacher for public immorality, public scandal or public rejection” of church teachings, a clause that wouldn’t be permissible under NLRB guidelines.

According to Robin Sowards, a Duquesne University adjunct faculty member and USW organizer, “over the last few years we have repeatedly renewed our request to bargain outside the NLRB framework, both orally and in writing, since our first such request … in May of 2012. … Their [the DU administration’s] current stated position is that they are opposed both to NLRB jurisdiction and to adjunct faculty having union representation outside NLRB jurisdiction.”

Inconsistent positions and delaying tactics have been DU’s pattern since the first attempts to organize its adjunct faculty. “Duquesne was initially receptive and quickly agreed to terms and conditions for a secret ballot election to be held under the auspices of the region’s National Labor Relations Board office,” writes Clayton Sinai in America. But when the adjunct faculty voted 50-to-9 for a union, the university became recalcitrant. The AFA-USW sees the university’s decision to raise adjuncts’ pay in fall, 2015 to $4,000 per three-credit course as a result of union pressure, but that raise can also be seen as one more attempt to induce faculty to forget about collective bargaining.

In the meantime, the union fully expects the NLRB hearings on the DU case, beginning on April 27, to end with a ruling in its favor. “They [DU administrators] have said to groups of faculty that they expect to lose their legal challenges,” says Sowards, “so my speculation would be that their strategy is to delay in the hope that we will give up—which, of course, we won’t.”


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