Last year, Michael Ng worked three jobs to make $34,000, and his situation is not a unique one.
Ng, an adjunct professor at Seattle University, is one of the many faces of the adjunct unionization movement that is sweeping the country.
But Ng, who taught at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., last year, ran into an unexpected problem when he and other adjuncts there attempted to unionize to negotiate for better pay and other benefits: religious exemption.
When Georgetown’s adjunct professors unionized this summer, they served as an exception to the rule for both religious and secular institutions of higher education.
According to Anne McLeer, director of higher education and strategic planning for Service Employees International Union Local 500, many schools put up a fight when adjuncts attempt to unionize.
“Georgetown was the first university that did nothing, absolutely nothing, to fight the union and just let things happen without the employer weighing in,” McLeer said.
While Georgetown did not protest unionization, PLU and Duquesne University, a Catholic university in Pittsburgh, claimed that their religious affiliations exempted them from the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board, which governs elections for labor unions.
The PLU adjunct movement took off in February, but the university delayed the adjuncts’ chance to unionize until this fall by arguing religious exemption in front of the regional NLRB. Though the board ruled in favor of the professors, the hearing delayed the adjunct vote until the next academic year, giving the university the summer to mobilize. Administrators sent emails through the provost’s office encouraging adjuncts to vote against collective bargaining. PLU Communications Officer Chris Albert did not respond to requests for comment.
The summer campaign did not stop the vote on unionization from happening in September, but the university appealed the election to NLRB at the national level, and the votes were impounded before they could be counted. Now, adjuncts at PLU are awaiting the NLRB’s decision on whether the university falls under the board’s jurisdiction.
“We’re stuck at this point, and we don’t know what the timeline is,” said Jane Harty, an adjunct professor in the music department at PLU. “This may not be in my my working lifetime that this is finally decided, but it is a very important issue for generations of faculty that come behind me, and for my younger colleagues. I hope they have a better working life than I’ve had.”
Ng said he hopes his former employers at PLU recognize that the university’s faith would support the union.
“Martin Luther didn’t nail those 95 Theses just for the fun of it,” Ng said. “I was disappointed when they put up a huge fight because even in some sense they ignored the clergy who have written in our support and signed petitions, and that seems strange for a religious university to ignore clergy telling you to do the right thing.”
At Duquesne, the university reneged on its original May 2012 promise to litigate through the NLRB, protesting religious grounds a few weeks later. Duquesne’s appeal was rejected at the regional NLRB level, leading the university to appeal unsuccessfully at the national level. After ballots came in overwhelmingly in favor of unionization in September 2012, the university appealed again, and Duquesne’s adjuncts are still awaiting a decision.
Robin Sowards, an adjunct professor in Duquesne’s English department, said he felt irked that the university changed its stance.
“I thought we’d reached some sort of agreement,” Sowards said. “They decided to be completely unreasonable and obstruct our rights under the law and our rights under Catholic social doctrine, so both ends seem to me a morally wrong act and kind of annoying.”
But one thing Duquesne had not counted on was the galvanizing effect of an op-ed in The Pittsburg Post-Gazette memorializing adjunct professor of French Margaret Mary Vojtko, who died of cancer in September. The author, Daniel Kovalik, senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers union, which represents the adjuncts at Duquesne, described Vojtko’s experience living on less than $10,000 a year when her course load was cut while she was ill.
“[Her nephew] said that while there was nothing that could be done for Margaret Mary, we had to help the other adjuncts at Duquesne and other universities who were being treated just as she was, and who could end up just like she did,” Kovalik wrote. “I believe that writing this story is the first step in doing just that.”
Sowards said that the administration was deeply concerned after the op-ed was released.
“Clearly it was something on their minds, and it should be,” Sowards said. “It was a tragedy, and one that could have been easily avoided by paying people a just wage as Catholic doctrine requires.”
Duquesne has said that they offered support to Vojtko, and the university’s vice president for advancement, John Plante, wrote in a letter to the Duquesne community that the union was exploitingVojtko’s death to garner support, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Duquesne’s office of media relations did not respond to requests for comment.
But the main issue that both PLU and Duquesne — in addition to Catholic institutions St. Xavier University in Chicago and Manhattan College in New York — are facing is whether they meet the criteria of a test to measure if a religiously affiliated institution of higher education falls under the jurisdiction of the NLRB.
According to The George Washington University Law School professor Robert Tuttle, an expert in church-state law, past cases have determined that to qualify for religious exemption, institutions must provide a religious environment to students and faculty, be nonprofit and have an affiliation with a recognized religious body. Tuttle said most questions of exemption depend on how the NLRB interprets what it means to provide a religious environment.
“The NLRB reads these things in a way that’s quite skeptical or at least is trying to draw the circle of religious exemption as narrowly as possible,” he said, adding that mandatory chapel services and Christianity classes are often seen as ways to determine the religious environment. “You don’t try to draw it as narrowly as possible. You draw it in a way that is not overly intrusive and takes these institutions at face value. If [the universities] claim to be religiously affiliated and if they are religiously affiliated and they claim it’s a religious environment in their public documents, then you basically take them at face value.”
While lawyers battle in the courtroom over jurisdiction, adjuncts continue to fight for better pay, job security and benefits.
In Washington, D.C., Kip Lornell, an adjunct professor in the music department at GWU and vice president for higher education for SEIU Local 500, said that while SEIU is assisting with unionization efforts at Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia, they are saving the Catholic University of America for last.
“We are quite confident that Catholic University will pull out the Catholic card,” Lornell said. “I will be pleasantly surprised and hopeful that they don’t, but we’ll be surprised if they don’t say, ‘Can’t unionize here. We’re a Catholic institution; the rules don’t apply.’”
No adjunct unionization efforts have officially begun at CUA, and CUA did not respond to requests for comment.
Ng is also trying to organize adjuncts at Seattle University, a Jesuit school where he has taught for four years.
“I hope that they will do the right thing,” Ng said. “I hope that they will just stand aside and let us decide for ourselves as faculty how we can best improve our lives.”
“The fighting doesn’t help anyone. All it does is spend money for lawyers on both sides and make people angry,” Ng added. “The idea I’m hoping for is that the Georgetown message comes out, that we can do this peacefully with neutrality on both sides — that we don’t have to make anyone a villain.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Seattle University adjunct professor Michael Ng had student loans. Ng did not have student loans.