On April 2, Georgetown University announced a path-breaking agreement with the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (GAGE/AFT), to hold a union election monitored by a neutral third party through which the university’s graduate assistants will choose whether they wish to bargain collectively with the university. In announcing the agreement, the university pledged that it “will continue its efforts to improve conditions for graduate students if a union is not elected, and will bargain in good faith if one is elected.”
The Georgetown agreement holds important and potentially game-changing implications. It has the potential to defuse some of the most bitterly contested labor questions that have divided institutions of higher education, secular and Catholic alike, and to point a way forward to negotiated solutions to these labor conflicts.
Over the past ten years, labor struggles have affected private higher education as never before. Driving these struggles have been the urgent efforts of adjunct and non-tenure-line instructors and graduate assistants to unionize, and the resistance to these efforts from campus administrators, including on Catholic campuses. Those who seek to form unions point to the creeping corporatization of private higher education, and the transference into the academic world of many of the patterns that are fostering growing inequality in the economy at large—not least an increasing reliance on expendable workers who earn low wages, lack benefits, and encounter massive resistance to their organizing efforts. (The rights of such workers at public institutions are governed by laws of the respective state; thus, resistance to unionization has been weaker.)
The centrality of these aggrieved workers to the functioning of our institutions of higher education cannot be denied. According to the American Association of University Professors, the share of part-time faculty has grown by 66 percent over the past four decades, with the total number of part-time faculty now exceeding that of tenured and tenure-line faculty combined. The average income of part-time instructors at doctorate-granting universities during the 2016–17 academic year was $10,764. Some adjuncts report relying on public assistance and working at three or four institutions simultaneously in order to make ends meet; many fear their shaky finances will be undone by a family illness.
Meanwhile, graduate assistants, whose instructional work in classrooms and labs, grading, and tutoring of students is essential to the operation of research universities, have waged a decades-long legal battle to get private universities even as far as the bargaining table to discuss pay, benefits, and grievance procedures. To date, only one private university in the country—New York University—has agreed to recognize a union.
Catholic institutions of higher education have also actively resisted unionization of part-time faculty and graduate assistants. Fundamental to their opposition is embrace of the argument that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) should not cover anyone involved in instruction on Catholic campuses, and that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces that law, has no valid jurisdiction over labor relations affecting these workers. Complying with NLRB jurisdiction would infringe upon the First Amendment religious rights of these institutions, administrators contend.