For centuries, the Church has offered a strong and principled vision on the dignity of work and justice for working people. Pope Leo XIII first recognized the right of workers to a living wage, decent working conditions, and the freedom to organize in an 1891 encyclical titled Rerum Novarum. In Laborem Excercens, Pope John Paul II reiterated the importance of organized labor, describing unions as “an indispensable element of social life” (no. 20). As recently as 2009, Pope Benedict XVI echoed his predecessors in calling for an even greater emphasis on the promotion of workers’ associations in Caritas in Veritate (no. 25). Drawing from the Church’s social doctrine, in which the freedom of association is enshrined, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stated: “No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself” (Economic Justice for All, no. 104). When Pope Francis visited Bolivia this past July, he concluded his remarks by reminding the crowd that the very future of humanity “is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.”
Although the Church has played an important role in the struggle for worker justice, putting these teachings into practice at Catholic institutions often causes tension. Recently, the Loyola University of Chicago decided to oppose an organizing drive among its contingent faculty. Soon after non-tenure-track professors (both adjuncts and full-time) filed for a union election, the University hired an outside firm to curtail the drive and launched a web page with misleading claims about union representation. The most troubling aspect of the University’s response has been its legal position on the matter. University officials appeared before the National Labor Relations Board and argued that the laws that protect American workers’ right to organize do not apply to their faculty because of Loyola’s religious affiliation. The University is making a religious freedom claim to prevent these professors from deciding whether to form a union under the National Labor Relations Board while offering no alternative process to do.
Non-tenure-track faculty members have good reason to organize. In the past three decades, colleges and universities have cut operating costs by sharply increasing their dependence on part-time, adjunct professors and full-time, non-tenured faculty. Although student tuition has skyrocketed, adjunct pay has remained dreadfully low. Most full-time adjuncts must teach at several institutions just to make enough money to cover basic expenses. At the median compensation rate of $2,700 per course, even a heavy teaching load of four courses per semester does not generate an income above the national poverty rate for a family of four. Moreover, contingent positions almost never include fringe benefits, retirement packages, or health insurance. The courses adjuncts teach can be cancelled the day before the semester begins without any compensation for the instructor. A recent survey of faculty at Jesuit institutions found that 15% of contingent faculty members have had to rely on public assistance such as Medicaid and food stamps. It is of little wonder why instructors at Loyola have moved in this direction.
The right of non-tenure-track instructors to organize at Catholic universities has consistently been affirmed in multiple rulings from the National Labor Relations Board. While the law does carve out an exemption for employees who perform ministerial functions at their religious institutions (for example, a priest or rabbi) these rulings established that contingent faculty members without denominational duties do not meet that standard. University officials often know that precedent is not on their side – Loyola administrators admit “the NLRB will likely not agree with our position” – but they nevertheless object on religious liberty grounds. Even as universities lose their individual hearings, they succeed in disheartening the contingent faculty, draining legal resources from the union, and delaying the process for years. For instance, adjuncts at Duquesne University voted in favor of unionizing with the United Steelworkers back in the summer of 2012, but they are still fighting to gain recognition due to continuous appeals and stalling tactics from the Duquesne administration. By the time the union is certified, it is likely that most of the faculty members who voted for the union will have moved on.
The notion that union representation of contingent faculty threatens to interfere with the University’s mission is unfounded. Just a cursory glance at adjunct collective bargaining agreements from other institutions, which Loyola helpfully uploaded on their website, reveals a limited scope of negotiations focused on modest pay increases, compensation for late cancellation of courses, and opportunities to participate in academic life. All of the changes that can reasonably be expected from a successful organizing drive relate to working conditions. After all, as the faculty’s counterpart in the collective bargaining process, the University can reject any proposal that compromises its mission or institutional values or has the potential to do so.
Catholic institutions do have a legitimate interest in preserving their religious liberty, but it must be balanced with the natural right of their employees to bargain collectively. Loyola University deserves praise for acknowledging the Jesuit and Catholic teachings on the dignity of work and the right of working people to organize for fair wages and better working conditions. Its simultaneous claim that the federal government lacks jurisdiction to enforce that right for its contingent faculty does not necessarily prevent Loyola from living out those teachings. The University does not require the blessing of the NLRB to bargain collectively with the union of the adjuncts’ choice – it simply needs the will to honor the Church’s social doctrine on this matter. Many Catholic parochial schools already have established cordial bargaining relationships with their staff outside of the supervision and interference of the federal government.
Therefore, if Loyola University has concrete and identifiable concerns about federally supervised collective bargaining infringing on its religious liberty, it should meet with the union to establish a method of certification outside of the NLRB process. Loyola University of Chicago and SEIU Local 73 share a unique opportunity to model how to honor the Church’s long-standing principles on worker rights while accommodating Loyola’s distinct mission as a Catholic and Jesuit school. The relationship they develop has the potential be more amicable, collaborative, and flexible than the process prescribed by the NLRB. SEIU has already expressed openness to such a partnership, and the timing is fitting: 2016 will mark the 125th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the Papal Encyclical that first established freedom of association as a core element of Catholic social teaching. Otherwise, Loyola University should withdraw its jurisdictional claim and allow its instructors to choose whether to form a union without hindrance or delay.