NLRB remands Duquesne’s religious exemption repeal

By Julian Routh | News Editor

The National Labor Relations Board rejected Duquesne’s appeal of an adjunct unionization vote, sending the case to a regional office for further consideration.

The University and the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers had been awaiting an NLRB ruling since 2012, when 85 percent of part-time adjunct faculty voted to unionize. Duquesne rejected the vote and appealed to the NLRB.

In the appeal, Duquesne asserted that it was exempt from NLRB oversight because it was a religious institution, and therefore should be treated like schools in similar cases, according to official documents filed with the board in June 2012.

At that time, the NLRB established a test that could determine whether or not an institution was church-operated. The courts determined three criteria a university must meet to claim religious exemption: that it provides a religious educational environment, is organized as a non-profit and is affiliated with a religious institution.

Duquesne spokeswoman Bridget Fare said Duquesne “clearly meets” those standards, and that the University is “pleased” that the case was remanded to a regional office.

“This is the same approach recently taken by the Board with other cases involving Catholic colleges and universities, all of which raise the same issue of whether the Board can assert jurisdiction over religious colleges and universities,” Fare said. “We stand by our First Amendment rights as a religious institution to be exempt from NLRB oversight.”

But adjunct union representatives at Duquesne see the NLRB’s decision to remand the case as a victory.

“The board in D.C. certainly could have, if it was inclined, ruled on this religious exemption issue and granted it to the administration,” adjunct instructor and United Steel organizer Robin Sowards said. “They chose not to do so, and the region’s position is very clear.”

Sowards said the regional office will most likely reject Duquesne’s appeal because the office was instructed to administer a test established in a December 2014 case.

In that case, NLRB v. Pacific Lutheran University, the courts instituted a new test that would determine if a school could claim religious exemption. The test requires a university to prove that its faculty members serve a religious function.

Adjunct faculty member Clint Benjamin said Duquesne does not meet the Pacific Lutheran criteria.

“This religious exemption, to me, doesn’t hold much water,” Benjamin said. “They are constantly moving the markers down the field. If the University wanted to follow Catholic doctrine, which suggests you lift up your poor and weakest links, they would encourage workers to form unions.”

The adjunct unionization movement at Duquesne garnered national attention after the death of adjunct instructor Margaret Mary Vojtko in September 2013. Vojtko, who worked at the University for 25 years, died penniless soon after being fired.

Adjuncts at Duquesne are paid $3,500 per course with a maximum of two courses per academic year. They are not given health care or retirement benefits.

Adjuncts contend that a union-backed collective bargaining agreement will wrest better working conditions including higher pay and benefits.

“Duquesne purports to be about social justice, so they should step up to the plate and do the very things they stand for,” Benjamin said. “Sure, they can hem and haw about their so-called religious exemption, but in the long term, they’ll be on the wrong side of history about this.”