Last month, Duquesne University became the latest front in the struggle of those who teach in colleges to organize unions. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is currently reconsidering its 2004 Brown University decision, which held that graduate students were not protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) because they were primarily students rather than employees. Similarly, the Board has invited briefs on the question of whether the 1980 Yeshiva University decision was correct in excluding university faculty from the Act’s coverage because they were “endowed with managerial status.” Now, as adjunct faculty have begun organizing unions, a number of Catholic colleges have asserted that they should be exempt from the Board’s jurisdiction because they are religious institutions.

In the past few years, adjunct faculty at two other Catholic-affiliated colleges, St. Xavier University in Illinois and Manhattan College in New York, have sought to join unions, and the colleges responded by arguing that they should receive religious exemptions. These first appeared as isolated approaches by two employers to avoid organized faculty, but Duquesne University’s initial acquiescence to Board jurisdiction before asserting a religious exemption has many thinking that this may be a new defense for any organization that has even marginal religious ties.

Duquesne University is a small university in Pittsburgh that was founded by the socially progressive Spiritan order, and remains affiliated with the Catholic Church. The adjunct faculty in Duquesne’s college of liberal arts formally decided to form a union earlier this year in order to address significant problems in the workplace, including low pay, lack of job security, and lack of access to health insurance. In addition to these major issues surrounding their jobs, several adjunct faculty members described the numerous indignities they face in their positions. Robin Sowards, who has taught in the English Department for several years, said that e-mails are addressed to “graduate students, adjuncts, and faculty,” as if adjuncts are a category apart from faculty. He described how adjuncts deliver much of the curriculum, but they are not allowed to serve on committees for curriculum. In the English Department, adjuncts are the only individuals with a copy machine quota, forcing many to have to travel to Kinko’s to make copies for their students. He personally has to share an office with eleven other adjuncts. Sowards recounts how Duquesne mandates that issues of academic integrity must be discussed with a student in a private location, but adjunct professors—who currently make up almost half the department and approximately two-thirds of the university—are not provided a private space. “If you’re telling a student that they are going to fail the course for plagiarizing, and they’re going to be weeping and you’re going to be handing them Kleenexes, having two or three other people in the room, it’s humiliating for the student.” These small issues, Sowards explains, “wear you down . . . all kinds of little things that are difficult to do, and add up to a substantial impediment to doing your job.”

Clint Benjamin, another adjunct in the English department, described how being an adjunct can become a vicious cycle unless one takes control of it. This semester, Benjamin teaches seven courses leaving him little time to pursue his research or publish. However, in order to get a tenure-track position, one must have publications. Asked whether he believed that Duquesne would consider him for a tenure track position, he answered that he’s applied but has never even received an interview. He explained the danger of being an adjunct for too long. “After several years you start to get the stink of the adjunct on you,” and other places start to assume that there’s a reason you don’t have full-time employment.

The Duquesne adjuncts approached the Steelworkers, who are headquartered in Pittsburgh, for assistance in organizing. The union met with Stephen Schillo, the vice president for management and business at Duquesne University, and Schillo rejected the adjuncts’ call for voluntary recognition of the union. He insisted on NLRB involvement and an NLRB-supervised election. According to one of the briefs filed by the Steelworkers, Schillo “chastised” the union and adjuncts for insisting that the university live up to its social teachings and support the workers rights to organize, telling them that they already had a bargaining relationship with four other unions on campus. Bridget Fare, the university spokesperson, told Inside Higher Ed that the University would treat the adjuncts’ attempt to organize in the same manner that they do all the other employees on campus, saying, “We’ll be letting the NLRB process take its course and proceed accordingly.”

Duquesne signed a stipulation of election and then changed tacks. The university fired its local outside counsel, Robert McTiernan and changed its approach to the organizing effort. Duquesne hired the Memphis-based lawyer Arnold Perl, who describes himself in the first sentence of his online profile as having more than forty years of experience “assisting” and “counseling” organizations “on remaining union free.” On June 15, one week before the mail-in ballot election was set to commence, Duquesne filed with the NLRB a motion to withdraw from the stipulated election agreement and a request that the matter be expedited. In this motion, Duquesne argued that as a Catholic University, it is beyond the NLRB’s jurisdiction.

Officials at Duquesne declined to be interviewed, but Bridget Fare stated in an e-mail that “the issue at hand is the constitutionality of the NLRB having jurisdiction over us as a religious institution. Under NLRB jurisdiction, Duquesne’s requirement to observe the principals of our mission would become subject to collective bargaining . . . and adherence to our mission cannot be a point of negotiation.” Dan Kovalik, the senior associate general counsel at the Steelworkers, responded to this characterization as Fare having a poor understanding of the law, Duquesne’s longtime position with respect to labor law, and Catholic teachings.

Every faculty member I spoke to expressed suspicion at Duquesne “waking up and realizing that it is a Catholic institution,” and was certain that the school was facing outside pressures. Each clarified that they did not believe that some sort of conspiracy was afoot, but simply believed that Duquesne would prefer to bargain. They had a sense that this is a new approach for Catholic universities to oppose unionization, and Duquesne was told to adopt the strategy.

Religious studies professor at Manhattan College and founder of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, Dr. Joseph Fahey, was not shy in declaring that he was certain there was a conspiracy, explaining, “I don’t use that term lightly. Conspiracy comes from the Latin for ‘breathing together,’ and in this instance that’s exactly what’s going on. There is a national conspiracy against unions in Catholic colleges and universities. Because they know that if adjuncts win, then full-time faculty are not far behind.”

The NLRB denied Duquesne’s request to withdraw its stipulation and supervised a mail-in vote in late June. The ballots were impounded pending an appeal, and finally counted in late September. The count revealed that 85 percent of the adjunct faculty in the college of liberal arts voted for the union. The faculty are certain that though they voted overwhelmingly for union representation, Duquesne is unlikely to recognize it and bargain with them. Instead, this issue will likely work its way through the courts, as everyone tries to figure out under what conditions those who teach in colleges may organize a union