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NLRB to Duquesne University: Recognize Your Adjunct Faculty Union

By Bill Schackner

The United Steelworkers on Tuesday implored Duquesne University to stop resisting its now-organized adjunct faculty, buoyed by the latest National Labor Relations Board ruling that campus officials must recognize those members’ collective bargaining rights.

The union called it sad that almost five years have passed since those part-time instructors voted in 2012 to form a union.

“Duquesne needs to stop its legal maneuvering, acknowledge the results of the election and negotiate with its adjunct faculty for a fair contract,” said USW International president Leo Gerard.

But Duquesne president Ken Gormley made it clear that the prolonged fight that has attracted national attention is not likely to end any time soon if the federal labor board continues to assert it has jurisdiction over the Catholic university.

Monday’s NLRB ruling in Washington, D.C., did that, largely upholding an earlier decision by the Pittsburgh regional office, though this latest decision removes theology faculty from the bargaining unit.

Mr. Gormley said the school intends to challenge the ruling in court, meaning it first must give formal notice that it is refusing to bargain with the union. The unfair labor practice charges that result will have to be resolved before the court challenge can begin, he added.

“It is unfortunate that the NLRB has prolonged this jurisdictional dispute,” he said. “If the NLRB had followed straightforward judicial precedent, the matter could have been resolved by now.”

The board’s 2-1 decision applies to roughly 125 adjunct faculty within the McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts who were covered by the 2012 vote. The removal of theology instructors will reduce the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers by three members, said Dan Kovalik, counsel for the union.

Citing earlier decisions involving Seattle University and Saint Xavier University in Chicago, the NLRB in explaining its ruling made a distinction between Duquesne faculty in other departments and those in the theology department.

It said an applicant applying for a theology position “would expect that the performance of their responsibilities would require furtherance of the university’s religious mission.”

It cited, among other aspects of their employment, that they teach courses “that are presented as having religious content” and “have an expertise in Catholic theology, other faith-based traditions or other aspects of the religious experience.”

The board, therefore, excluded theology instructors from the bargaining unit. But it denied all other aspects of the university’s appeal of the regional NLRB decision.

Duquesne contends that the NLRB lacks jurisdiction to rule in the case given the university’s religious mission as a church-operated school. But the NLRB has said that it first asserted jurisdiction over Duquesne in 1982 and that the school did not challenge the agency with regard to other unions on campus.

In a statement, Mr. Gormley said he was disappointed by Monday’s decision, which he said “directly conflicts with over 30 years of United States Supreme Court and Federal Appeals Court rulings, establishing exemption from NLRB jurisdiction for faith-based universities.”

He said the NLRB in its decision effectively deems that Duquesne is not “sufficiently religious, and therefore Duquesne falls under its control.”

He said the issue “is not about the university’s support for unions.” Rather, he said Duquesne contends that it “could not risk negotiating its Catholic mission in the Spiritan tradition, or the faculty’s role in it, with a union, much less entrust its mission or that relationship to the supervision of a government agency in Washington, D.C.”

Union representatives see it differently, among them Mr. Kovalik.

He said Duquesne’s initial position was that the NLRB was the proper venue for the election, but that it later reversed course. He said the union disputes Duquesne’s claim that this is not about unions.

“We think it’s frankly hypocritical of them to hide behind the Catholic identity to avoid doing what the Catholic church explicitly tells them to do — that is to honor labor unions.”

Asked about Mr. Gormley’s statement, Mr. Kovalik said the faculty union has not yet been formally notified by Duquesne that the school is refusing to bargain with it.

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