Fordham University President Joseph McShane, SJ, announced to the Fordham community that the administration will not object to the unionization of Fordham’s contingent faculty. In a campus-wide email, Fr. McShane explicitly cited unions’ “deep roots in Catholic social justice teachings” as an important factor in his decision.
Indeed, the right to organize and join unions is a key component of Catholic social teaching on the dignity of labor and the rights of workers. It was recognized one-and-a-quarter centuries ago in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and reaffirmed in several Papal encyclicals and pastoral letters since then. Even lay employees in Vatican City are represented by a union recognized by the Holy See.
Although the right to unionize is guaranteed by U.S. labor laws, many Catholic universities have filed legal challenges to unionization and outright refused to recognize employee unions – claiming that their religious status exempts them from federally-mandated collective bargaining. Even as these arguments are rejected by labor boards and courts, the challenges delay contract negotiations for years, disrupt university operations, and cultivate a toxic climate that does not suit a Catholic university.
In choosing an open and collaborative approach to faculty unionization, Fordham honors a rich Catholic and Ignatian tradition of working towards economic justice. It joins three other Jesuit universities – Georgetown, Loyola Chicago, and St. Louis – and several non-Jesuit Catholic colleges that have opted for cooperation over obstruction.
It is important to highlight the role that the Fordham community played in reminding university leadership of their duty to do right by their employees. The administration initially moved to block the organizing drive before reversing course after demonstrations and a flood of messages from faculty members and their allies. In between, faculty held a vote of no confidence, fourteen students were dealt sanctions after a tense protest, and even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio voiced his support for a fair union election. Fr. McShane acknowledged that the input he received from the campus community and his fellow Jesuits was influential in his decision.
Still, Fordham University and Fr. McShane should be applauded for choosing this course of action. There is a substantial cost to improving working conditions for adjunct professors. That is because in recent decades institutions of higher education have balanced the books on the backs of contingent faculty, who earn a fraction of their tenured colleagues’ salary and receive few (if any) benefits. As an institution that largely depends on tuition payments for revenue and educates a working-class student population, Fordham faces real financial constraints. Meeting faculty at the bargaining table in good faith is an important step in balancing these realities so that the university can carry on its sacred mission.
Read Fr. McShane’s entire letter below.
Friday, May 19, 2017
Dear Members of the Fordham Family,
After much consultation and reflection, I have decided that the University will not oppose the unionization of adjunct faculty. As you receive this email, we have initiated discussion with the union over the University adopting a stance of neutrality regarding the organization of our adjunct faculty.
I have become convinced of the rightness of this course of action over the last few months by conversations with my fellow Jesuits. After all, organized labor has deep roots in Catholic social justice teachings. And though this is an issue that many universities are facing—not all of which have come to the same decision—given its Jesuit traditions and historic connection to first-generation and working-class students, Fordham has a special duty in this area.
There is a cost to this decision—literally. As I have said regarding salary and benefits negotiations with the tenured and tenure-track faculty, and the mandate to hold down tuition increases, the University seeks a balance of goods: there simply are not funds enough to do everything we would like to do. We do not yet know what the full impact of this decision will be, but I have asked our chief financial officer to ensure any additional funding required for adjunct salaries comes from areas that least affect our mission.
Finally, I want to acknowledge all of you who wrote to me and called my office on this issue. Though it may not always be as obvious as I’d like, I am sensitive to the concerns of the University community, and I deeply appreciate your input. I would not have made this decision were it not the right thing to do, but in this case, popular opinion and the ethical choice were in harmony.
I look forward to seeing many of you at Commencement, and to all of you I wish a long, peaceful summer.
Joseph M. McShane, S.J.