Could your right to join a union with your coworkers clash with your communion with God? A recent crisis of faith at the National Labor Relations Board presents some tough lessons for the academic labor movement.
Although the non–tenure track faculty members at Seattle University scored the board’s blessing for their hard-fought union vote, with a 73-to-63 majority approving unionization with SEIU, some faculty were excluded from the process by divine intervention. The majority of the board ruled 12 faculty had jobs that were, in essence, too religious to unionize, and another 15 votes were challenged on similar faith-based grounds.
The ruling cited a crucial precedent that allowed faculty unionization at Catholic schools generally, but barred faculty holding “a specific role in creating and maintaining the school’s religious educational environment” from joining a collective-bargaining unit representing non-religious faculty. The logic is that a traditional collective-bargaining relationship would be incompatible with the supposed theological mission of religion-focused educators. But the problem with institutions like Seattle University, which also runs secular programs, is how to draw the line between religious and non-religious work—and why should union rights depend on whether an educator teaches theology or biology?
The excluded faculty members taught in the School of Theology and Ministry and Department of Theology and Religious Studies within the College of Arts & Sciences. According to the final ruling, the programs included courses like “Between the Bible and the Quran,” and the School of Theology granted degrees in divinity and ministry.
The board issued a similar ruling simultaneously in a case involving St. Xavier University in Chicago, deciding that “part time faculty in the Department of Religious Studies [were] performing a specific role in maintaining the university’s religious educational environment.” In both rulings, the board noted that the faculty’s teaching qualifications typically included special training in the “Catholic tradition,” or background as Jesuits.