Betsy Pingree has been living with friends for free because she can’t afford an apartment while finishing her dissertation on the precarious conditions of migrant laborers in the 20th century. Standing with fellow graduate-student workers at Boston College who are demanding recognition of their union, she acknowledged the irony. Like many in her cohort on this leafy Catholic campus in the Boston area, she works as many as 60 hours a week on her research and teaching. She earns a stipend of $22,600 a year; the average one-bedroom apartment in Boston costs $11,000 more than that. She used to live with her husband, a disabled veteran, who helped support her with his government payments. Now that he works out of state, she can’t pay her own rent.

On March 10, Pingree stood outside a Gothic-style Jesuit church at the entrance to the school with other graduate teaching and research assistants, holding placards that read, “Worker rights are Catholic values.” The rally came one day before Boston College announced it would cancel on-campus classes and shift to online instruction because of the coronavirus threat. BC declared that while fully funded graduate students would keep their stipends and benefits, hourly paid graduate students would get a check only “if they are fulfilling their regular responsibilities—and work on campus.” Meanwhile, Sam Levinson, a chemistry PhD candidate, said research assistants like her who work in labs were feeling pressured by their supervisors to continue showing up for work until the university announced it would “ramp down” research by the end of the day on March 20. The crisis only underscored the lack of protection faced by these workers, who accuse Boston College of betraying the Jesuit tradition of reverence for unions by refusing to bargain with them after they won a union election in 2017. “Without a contract, we have no access to any kind of guarantee that our bosses will protect us from harm in this situation,” Levinson said. At the rally, the organizers hoped to grab the attention of a delegation from the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities that was visiting the campus as part of a review process through which schools like BC are supposed to demonstrate their commitment to Jesuit values, including on issues like payment for employees. While the university has negotiated with unions representing police and facilities workers, administrators insist that Pingree and her colleagues are students, not workers. And in opposing their right to form a union, the school has invoked a legal argument that has found increasing favor with federal agencies and courts: that BC’s Catholic mission puts the workers outside the protection of the law—in this case, outside the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces the right of private-sector workers to unionize.

Religiously affiliated institutions, from Catholic universities like Boston College to for-profit corporations with Christian owners like Hobby Lobby, have used arguments about religious freedom to win exemptions from an array of laws intended to protect workers over the past decade. Many of these cases concerned the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employer health plans cover birth control. But religious corporations have expanded such requests to seek ever-broader power over their workers, including the right to underfund employee pension plans and bust unions in the name of God. Some of these cases have been driven by groups like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which wants to limit government regulation of religious entities and represented Hobby Lobby in its suit over the ACA’s birth control requirement, enabling foster care and adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ parents and religious schools to fire employees with disabilities. Other cases have been brought by universities like Boston College that may have a financial rather than a religious motive for fighting unions on their campuses. “Employers have an incentive to refuse to bargain and just kind of rest on their religious character,” said Charlotte Garden, an associate professor at Seattle University School of Law. Her university, a Jesuit school, invoked a similar religious argument to defeat a union campaign by its adjunct professors.

The rise in corporate religious rights has coincided with an erosion in legal protections for workers overall. Forced to turn to a higher power than the law, workers at Catholic institutions have invoked the long history of support for unions in Catholic teaching. These workers have mounted campaigns accusing their institutions of taking advantage of the Trump administration’s evisceration of union rights while abandoning their Catholic values. “The efforts by these universities come at a time when a conservative judicial majority right now in the Supreme Court—and a growing sentiment on the federal court benches in general—favors using constitutional principles like the First Amendment as a battering ram against workers’ ability to bargain collectively,” said Joseph McCartin, a professor of history at Georgetown University. “What you’re seeing is institutions that are hiding behind the law but ignoring their own social teaching.”

The NLRB is composed of Donald Trump appointees who have made clear their intention to roll back union rights, including those of graduate students at private universities like BC. In September the board issued a draft rule—which is under review after a flood of public comments—to revoke the right of these students to unionize under its jurisdiction, reversing a ruling from 2016 that spurred a wave of graduate student unionization nationwide. In a second blow to workers at religious universities, a federal appeals court in January ruled that Duquesne University did not have to recognize its adjunct faculty union because of its Catholic mission. “The workers at these institutions find themselves doubly betrayed, because on the one hand, like workers everywhere, they’re finding that the law provides less and less protection for them in the 21st-century economy,” McCartin said. “At the same time, they are working in institutions whose principles and teachings would seem to uphold their right to come together, and yet those institutions are now telling them that no, they don’t have those rights.”

Since the 2016 election, labor organizers have anticipated that a Trump-appointed NLRB might issue a sweeping exemption to religious universities. The fear of such a ruling prompted the Boston College graduate union to withdraw its petition to enforce its election in 2018. In a statement to The Nation, BC said this withdrawal “ended any legal basis for the University to grant the students’ request to bargain.” (The statement added that teaching and research assistants receive “generous annual stipends.”) But Bryn Spielvogel, an education PhD candidate who makes $21,000 during the academic year, said the university shouldn’t rely on the Trump administration’s anti-union position. “They no longer have a legal obligation to recognize and bargain with our union, but we believe that they still have a moral obligation to do so, particularly as a Jesuit university that holds up social justice as a core value and mission of the university,” Spielvogel said.

A higher law: Graduate student workers at Boston College argue that the university is betraying its Jesuit values in refusing to recognize their union. (Daniel Patterson)

In August 2013, Margaret Mary Vojtko was found unconscious from a heart attack on the front lawn of her derelict home after being let go from her job as an adjunct professor at Duquesne University. Vojtko, who at age 83 was being treated for ovarian cancer, had been earning less than $10,000 a year with no health benefits and was laid off without severance or retirement benefits from an institution where she had taught for a quarter of a century. She never regained consciousness, and her death two weeks later became a rallying cry for the plight of adjuncts, who work on fixed-term contracts; such non-tenure-track positions make up more than 70 percent of teaching positions in higher education. The year before her death, adjunct professors at Duquesne voted to form a union, but the university refused to recognize them, claiming it didn’t have to because of its Catholic mission.

While the NLRB generally protects workers at religious hospitals and workers like custodians who are clearly uninvolved in the religious missions of their employers, teachers at religious universities have proved to be more of a sticking point. In 2014, in a case concerning Pacific Lutheran University, the NLRB said, over the objections of the Becket Fund, that it could protect adjunct faculty at religiously affiliated universities unless the school claimed the teachers performed a religious function. The board therefore ordered Duquesne to negotiate with the adjuncts, ruling that only faculty in the theology department were exempt. But this January the DC Circuit Court of Appeals said any attempt by the NLRB to parse the role of faculty “impermissibly intrudes into religious matters.” (The union has petitioned for a rehearing in the case.)

The adjunct professors at Duquesne point out that the university’s Catholic mission has not prevented it from recognizing the rights of police, public safety dispatchers, and other workers who are unionized at its Pittsburgh campus. But according to the school, the adjuncts are different because “the academic work of the University across all disciplines is the work of the Church and contributes to the Church’s mission of evangelization.” Clint Benjamin, an adjunct professor of English at Duquesne, rejected that idea. “I would say that there is zero religious content in my curriculum,” he said. “I guess by showing up, in their eyes, I work for the mission, but you don’t have to be religious to go there. I didn’t have to take a fealty oath or anything.”

He called Duquesne’s decision to evoke its Catholic mission against the adjuncts “willfully hypocritical.” Duquesne, in response, pointed to a statement from the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, the president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. “Duquesne voluntarily recognizes four unions on campus and is not so easily dismissed as anti-union, or anti-church-teaching on unions,” he wrote. “The question at some Catholic universities is less about unions as a larger reality, and more about particular unions in particular situations, especially when the Catholic identity of an institution could be impacted.”

But Benjamin noted the school’s Catholic mission should make it even more inclined to protect adjuncts, who work in precarious conditions. He has not been assigned any classes at Duquesne this semester because of low enrollment. When they have work, adjuncts there make only $4,000 a course.

“Pope Francis has said that labor unions are necessary and defends the dignity of work, and Duquesne itself pays lip service to helping, supposedly, the downtrodden and the weak, like good Catholics,” Benjamin said. “But the reality is, at least in my situation, in our adjunct situation, that they do not.”

Papal decree: Pope Francis said, “There is no good society without a good union.” (Vatican Pool / Getty Images)

In 1891, in response to the industrial revolution, Pope Leo XIII called for the working people of the world to unionize. “Some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place,” he wrote in the encyclical Rerum Novarum. While railing against socialism and unchecked capitalism alike, the pope called for workers to form “societies for mutual help.” “The most important of all are workingmen’s unions,” he wrote.

More than 40 years later, on the heels of the Great Depression, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, guaranteeing the right of private-sector workers to unionize. But employees of churches are deemed exempt from the law, as are parochial school teachers, who were excluded by a 1979 Supreme Court decision. Some workers at religiously affiliated entities have also been excluded from discrimination protections in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But as the rights of religious entities have expanded, the shape of these entities has changed dramatically over time. A century ago, religious institutions were often church-funded charities that employed and served members of that religion, said Elizabeth Sepper, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. “Today, that’s not what religious institutions look like, even in the nonprofit sector,” she said. When it comes to health care in particular, religious institutions tend to look much more like big businesses, paying their CEOs millions of dollars and charging patients high rates for care. Catholic hospitals control at least one in six acute-care beds nationwide.

In some cases, religious corporations or those with Christian owners have weaponized the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law intended to provide stronger protections for people to practice their religions, to justify firing or denying benefits to women and LGBTQ workers. Over 100 for-profit and nonprofit corporations filed challenges alleging violations of religious freedom over the Obama administration’s requirement that employees receive birth control coverage. But these corporations have pushed religious exemptions far beyond birth control. In 2017, after receiving briefs from the Becket Fund and right-wing powerhouses Alliance Defending Freedom and the Thomas More Society, the Supreme Court ruled that an exemption for “church plans” in the federal law protecting employee pension funds can apply to religiously affiliated hospitals. Other cases expanding the rights of religious employers have hinged on a constitutional principle called the ministerial exemption, which allows religious institutions to hire and fire ministers without regard for antidiscrimination law. In 2012 the Becket Fund scored a major victory when the Supreme Court ruled that under the exemption, a Lutheran school could fire a teacher with narcolepsy who had daily religious duties and a title that included the word “minister.” Becket has argued for an even broader application of the loophole in two cases now before the Supreme Court that involve teachers with more limited religious duties—one who said she was fired because of age discrimination and the other because she had breast cancer. The Trump administration issued a draft rule last year to let religiously affiliated federal contractors, including for-profit companies, fire workers who violate a company’s religious principles. Luke Goodrich, a vice president of the Becket Fund, cheered the decision, telling The Washington Post, “When a religious group says ‘Hey, we need you to be a Christian and adhere to Christian teachings,’ federal law has recognized that’s not discrimination.”

Patients first: Health care workers at Swedish-Providence Medical Center in Seattle went on strike in January to protest the hospital’s staffing levels and wages. They say the hospital isn’t honoring its Catholic values. (Darren Hauck / Getty Images)

While religious exemptions have weakened their power, workers at Catholic institutions may have a unique advantage when it comes to union rights. “The church says workers have a right to organize and does not qualify that by saying only some groups of workers,” said Clayton Sinyai, the executive director of the Catholic Labor Network, a group of labor organizers, clergy, and social justice activists who promote Catholic teaching on labor. “So it’s quite possible for a worker not to have a protected legal right to organize under American labor law and yet the church would still recognize that they have a right to organize under natural law or under church teaching.” The network keeps a tally of the more than 600 Catholic institutions with established unions, including 300 Catholic K–12 schools nationwide that have bargained with teachers, even though the Supreme Court has said they don’t have to.

Appealing to the Catholic mission of an institution has at times proved to be a winning strategy. In 2017, with their right to form a union in doubt under Trump, graduate students at Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, asked it to voluntarily recognize their union. Georgetown has touted its Jesuit-inspired respect for workers as part of a just-employment policy issued in 2005, after students went on hunger strike and won a living wage for contract employees, including janitors and food service workers. “With hope and expectation that this institution will do the right thing, we call on Georgetown University to live up to its highest Jesuit values of promoting cura personalis [care of the whole person] and offering dignified work,” the graduate students wrote in their request for recognition.

At first, Georgetown rejected the union, claiming, as Boston College has done, that the graduate students were not workers—even though the union points out that the university relies on their labor as teaching and research assistants and instructors. So the organizers went on the offensive with a public campaign centered on Georgetown’s Jesuit mission. During the university’s celebration of Jesuit Heritage Week in 2018, they handed out flyers emblazoned with the hashtag PracticeWhatYouPreach and a quotation from Pope Francis: “There is no good society without a good union.”

“Pope Francis, whether he knows it or not, has been actually very helpful to us in providing quotes that we can use,” said Brent McDonnell, a history PhD candidate at Georgetown. The students planned to stage a mock award ceremony outside a Georgetown fundraiser, handing out fake prizes to cutouts of Georgetown officials to congratulate them for failing to live up to the university’s Jesuit mission. On the eve of the event, McDonnell said, Georgetown folded. “It was at this point that the university e-mailed us and said, ‘Don’t do this. We’ll talk next week about an election agreement.’”

Georgetown agreed to a union election overseen by a third-party arbitrator, without the involvement of Trump’s NLRB. The agreement ensured that Georgetown would continue to recognize the union, regardless of what the NLRB concludes about the rights of graduate workers. Other Catholic entities should follow Georgetown’s lead, said McCartin of the history department, who also directs the university’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.

“If these institutions don’t want to be governed by the civil law, it’s incumbent upon them to come up with their own rules that provide for ways and means through which workers can come together, if they choose to, and bargain with their employer,” McCartin said. “In a sense, this is what Georgetown has done, and there’s nothing that blocks any other institution from doing it.”

In Everett, Washington, a city north of Seattle reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, workers at a hospice owned by the state’s largest health care system, Providence Health & Services, have been fighting for a union contract since 2016. John Shannon, a social worker at the hospice who is Catholic, said he made a presentation during a bargaining session about the values of the Sisters of Providence, who in the 19th century founded the hospitals that evolved into Providence, now a multibillion-dollar corporation. “I said, ‘I’ve had all these years of education through my master’s degree in Catholic institutions, and I’m having a real hard time seeing how we’re honoring these values in the current climate of a more business focus,’” he recalled. “One of the people on their bargaining committee…said, ‘Well, we do a reflection before every meeting.’ And that was it.”

Catholic health systems like Providence follow directives issued by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops that are best known for prohibiting abortion, most forms of contraception, sterilization, and fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization. The rules have been used to turn patients away when they are bleeding and in pain from miscarriages and to cancel gender-affirming surgeries for transgender people. But a seemingly forgotten section of the directives requires Catholic hospitals to provide “recognition of the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively without prejudice to the common good.” The Providence workers say that’s not happening. And while the NLRB does protect employees at religious health care facilities, they say that hasn’t stopped their employer from slow-walking negotiations or, in the case of Providence workers at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle who went on strike in January, locking them out. As they fight for a living wage and increased staffing amid a spiraling pandemic, the Providence workers in Everett have support from another source outside the law: Sister Helen Brennan, a 70-year member of the hospital’s founding order. Brennan, who also rallied in the rain with locked-out Swedish-Providence workers in January, said such solidarity is part of the Catholic mission of the Sisters, which the hospice workers understand, even if well-paid hospital executives may not. “They know what we were about and what our mission is about. It’s about care for the people,” she told The Nation. “And if you care for the people, you don’t need million-dollar salaries.”

Not all Catholic authority figures feel the same. The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, after its delegation’s visit to Boston College, refused to comment on the graduate union, saying it was “an issue that Boston College is handling directly.” But Brennan, at least, seems to agree with the BC workers that even if the law has loopholes for religious institutions, the Catholic faith does not.

“For 129 years, the popes have said that all people, not just Catholics, have a right to unionize,” Kyle McCaffery, a master’s theology student at Boston College, said at the March rally. “Catholicism grants no religious exemption to this administration.”