The local office of a national labor board has ordered that votes be counted in a stalled election to decide whether adjunct faculty at Seattle University should form a union. The school has until March 17 to appeal the decision.

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Votes from an election last summer to decide whether nontenured faculty at Seattle University should form a union ought to be counted, said a ruling from the local office of a national labor board.

The decision orders the labor office to open and tally the ballots, which were impounded last year after the Catholic, Jesuit-led college appealed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), arguing it should be exempt from the board’s jurisdiction because it is a religious institution.

Seattle University has until March 17 to appeal the labor board’s Tuesday decision.

The ruling comes a week after hundreds of faculty members and students walked out of Seattle University’s campus, protesting adjunct professors’ working conditions and calling for the college to count the votes.

Adjunct faculty make up more than 50 percent of the faculty at Seattle University but work on annual contracts and are not on track to earn tenure. Nationwide, they are the fastest-growing segment of teachers at all colleges and universities. As the economy improves, these faculty members have increased their demands for job security and better pay.

Pro-union faculty say unionizing would help improve pay and working conditions. They argue the university’s attempt to stall union-organizing efforts runs counter to its social-justice mission.

“We are extremely gratified (by the ruling),” said Louisa Edgerly, an adjunct instructor of communications and journalism and a member of the union-organizing committee. “We’re really confident that we will win.”

University officials have said they already increased compensation and are working on fixing other issues, such as the shortage of office space.

The university is reviewing the ruling and considering what to do next, Seattle University spokesman Dean Forbes said Wednesday. Forbes did not say whether the university plans to challenge the labor board’s order.

The Tuesday ruling cites a precedent-setting December decision by the national labor board to allow adjunct faculty to create a union at another private college, Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. In that ruling, the labor board argued it’s not enough for a school to be a religious institution to be exempt from labor rules allowing unions; faculty could not be denied the right to collectively bargain unless they were carrying out a religious function, the board said.

Ultimately, though, the PLU faculty group withdrew its petition to form a union in January after the university and some faculty challenged about a third of the union election’s votes. They have said they will likely attempt a new vote later this year.

In the past two years, a number of other religious colleges and universities around the country have appealed to the national board after adjunct faculty sought to form unions.