President Stephen Sundborg says religious freedom is at stake and that Seattle University will take its fight to federal court rather than bargain with a newly formed union for contingent faculty.
Citing the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of religion, Seattle University said it will not bargain with the newly formed union that represents its contingent faculty, and will take its fight to federal court.
SU President Stephen Sundborg said in an interview Friday that the case could eventually make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He expects a half-dozen other religious universities — where part-time and nontenured faculty are trying to form unions — to join the court fight.
Contingent faculty member Benedict Stork called the university’s religious-freedom argument “simply more of the same.”
He said the university’s real opposition is to paying contingent faculty more money and giving them a say in university governance.
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Contingent faculty — professors and instructors who do not have tenure or who work part-time — make up about half the faculty at the 125-year-old Jesuit school. They have been fighting for more than two years for the right to form a union, saying they are underpaid and not given enough of a voice in how the university is run.
They voted on whether to form a union in 2014, but the ballots were locked up after the university appealed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal board that acts as a quasi-judicial body in enforcing U.S. labor law.
The university lost the case four times at the NLRB’s regional and national level. Early last month, after all appeals appeared to have been exhausted, the votes were counted, giving the union a 73-63 victory.
Sundborg acknowledged that some students and faculty will oppose SU’s decision to fight the NLRB decision, but that “we need to take a stand” against the federal board. “It’s a decision on principle about whether or not we can be a Catholic and Jesuit university, in our own way,” Sundborg said.
In a video address to the university, Sundborg called the NLRB’s decision an “unconstitutional assertion of jurisdiction over our faith-based educational mission.” And in an interview, he said the NLRB overstepped its authority when it ruled that a religious school must comply with the federal labor act.
Under a union, “would the university be required to hire faculty openly hostile to our Jesuit way of teaching and Catholic identity?” Sundborg asked. “Would the university be prohibited from removing a faculty member who seeks to undermine our core religious identity?
“Under NLRB jurisdiction, the answer to these questions could be ‘yes,’ ” he said.
After last month’s vote count, the faculty members earned the right to be a bargaining unit under Service Employees International Union Local 925. The national union has been trying to unionize contingent and adjunct faculty at private colleges and universities around the country for several years.
“It is atrocious that a supposedly progressive Jesuit institution has decided to violate workers’ rights and the law,” SEIU 925 President Karen Hart said in a statement. “These endless delay tactics are just excuses to avoid negotiating a fair contract with SU adjunct faculty.”
Hart wrote that after Seattle University lost all of its appeals, “it’s time to move on, begin bargaining in good faith, and live up to the social justice values they claim to uphold.”
In addition to releasing the Sundborg video, the university sent a letter to union representatives Friday saying it would “respectfully decline to negotiate with the union.” That is expected to set in motion an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.
Sundborg argued the university’s right to carry out its core Jesuit Catholic educational mission free from government intrusion is guaranteed by the First Amendment, and that right has consistently been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In their 2-1 ruling, the NLRB members did exempt nontenured faculty in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and the School of Theology and Ministry from union eligibility.
Sundborg said that amounts to meddling in decisions about which faculty are involved in the school’s religious mission.
He said the university isn’t opposed to unions — it has more than 60 employees represented by seven different unions — but that faculty unionization was different because it went to the core of the university’s purpose.
But Stork said the fact that the university already has unions showed a lack of consistency in dealing with the conflict between a religious institution and a union.
He believes a student-led sit-in last spring, calling for an overhaul of SU’s Matteo Ricci College, was related to the contingent faculty’s lack of a voice. Most of the Matteo Ricci faculty were contingent faculty, and were too fearful of losing their jobs to raise questions about whether the classical curriculum was still relevant, Stork said.
The sit-in led to the retirement of the college’s dean, and Matteo Ricci’s curriculum is being re-evaluated.
Sundborg declined to say how much the fight is costing the university, other than to call it “a modest amount, overall.” He came to the decision, to fight the case, jointly with the university’s board of trustees.
Seattle U is being represented by the Seattle firm Sebris Busto James, a labor and employment law firm.