Ollie Gratzinger | editor-in-chief
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled Jan. 28 that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has no jurisdiction over the university’s adjunct faculty.
According to the ruling, the NLRB does not have the authority to approve an adjunct faculty union — a right the professors have been campaigning for since 2012.
This decision, if upheld, could permanently douse unionization efforts at Duquesne.
“The ruling by the Court of Appeals reaffirms what the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear for decades: That religious organizations like ours are exempt from regulation and intrusion by the federal government as it pertains to employment relationships with our faculty (here, adjunct faculty members in the college of liberal arts),” said Duquesne University President Ken Gormley. “This decision by the United States Court of Appeals was an important one, in terms of ensuring that we maintain the 142-year-old Catholic and Spiritan identity of our university. Our name is Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit for a reason.”
The ruling was based on the “long-standing precedent” by the U.S. Supreme Court and earlier decisions of the D.C. Circuit, according to a university statement emailed to students.
Gormley elaborated, explaining that the religion clauses in the First Amendment of the Constitution prevent the government from interfering in religious affairs. Since Duquesne is a religious institution, organized as non-profit, the court ruled that it is exempt from the jurisdiction of the NLRB — a federal agency.
“The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that issued the ruling in our case is one of the highest courts in the nation aside from the Supreme Court,” he said. “Its decision was lauded by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and other religious institutions across the United States in the same position as Duquesne. As someone who has studied and taught constitutional law for decades, it is clear to me that this is a correct interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.”
But for some adjuncts, the ruling feels like a step in the wrong direction.
Clinton Benjamin has been teaching English and composition as an adjunct at Duquesne for about 10 years. He isn’t on campus this semester because of low enrollment — his classes were removed from the roster.
“It certainly seems to slam the door on adjunct unionization at Duquesne,” Benjamin said. “Admin kept moving the goalposts until they got a decision they liked. I think it reflects a willful hypocrisy from them that’s about on par with what we’ve seen before during this kerfuffle.”
According to Benjamin, adjuncts make about $4,050 per class. He’s limited to two classes a semester, which gives him an income of just over $16,000 per year.
“I can hardly live on it, but I’m good at teaching and I like it,” he said.
According to Inside Higher Ed, adjuncts teach 44% of all credit hours in Duquesne’s core curriculum, including math, writing, science, philosophy, theology and ethics.
United Steelworkers, the union seeking to organize the university’s adjuncts, issued a statement in response to the ruling.
“We are disappointed with the court’s decision and even more concerned that Duquesne’s administration would fight this hard to keep their workers from having a voice on the job. Unlike other Catholic universities that recognized adjunct faculty unions, the Duquesne administration decided to invoke its status as a religiously affiliated institution in an effort to stop adjuncts from joining together to improve their working conditions and the university community,” it said. “Adjuncts in Duquesne’s McAnulty College voted in favor of union representation. They deserve the same rights to come together and bargain collectively as all workers.”
Gormley insisted that the ruling was not intended to diminish the work of adjuncts, or delegitimize the merits of unionization. He said growing up in Swissvale, a factory town, had given him a “special appreciation” for unions. During college, he was a member of a union when he worked for Union Switch & Signal.
“Our successful position in this case, premised on our religious status, does not in any way indicate a lack of appreciation for the importance of unions. To the contrary; the university has and continues to have a deep respect and appreciation for unions,” he said. “Duquesne has maintained long-term relations with four different unions representing several hundred non-faculty employees on our campus.”
Gormley also said he’d worked as an adjunct for seven years early in his career.
During those seven years, Gormley was also practicing law.
“I understand how vital these members of our faculty are in helping us to deliver a first-rate education to our students,” he said. “For all of these reasons, we see the court’s decision as a positive one for Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit.”
The treatment of adjunct professors at Duquesne became a mainstream issue in 2013, following the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, who had worked as an adjunct professor of French at the university for 25 years.
Vojtko suffered a heart attack in August and died two weeks later on Sept. 1, 2013. She was 83.
According to a Duke article from 2013, Vojtko would sometimes sleep overnight on the couch in the department office, because she was undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer and the treatment would make her feel tired and weak.
Due to medical bills she had incurred while undergoing cancer treatments, coupled with the meager salary she made as an adjunct, she was living in extreme poverty. The lack of a pension plan and benefits after the university decided not to renew her teaching contract resulted in Vojtko being unable to fix a broken furnace at her house, which left her without heat. She’d spend nights at an Eat n’ Park and bus back to Duquesne in the morning.
“Poor adjunct conditions hurt the entire profession. Reliance on adjunct professors erodes tenure-track positions and makes tenure-track [professors] take on greater course loads,” Benjamin said. “It used to be that being a professor was a ladder into the middle class — not anymore, since adjuncts are becoming the norm, not the exception.”
According to Inside Higher Ed, the 2-1 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia suggests that more litigation in the case may be possible. However, it is not known at this time if the NLRB will appeal this decision to the Supreme Court.