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.

To date, only one private university in the country—New York University—has agreed to recognize a union.

Among the first schools to advance this argument were Manhattan College and Duquesne University. In 2011, Manhattan adjuncts voted to unionize in an election supervised by the NLRB; the following year, adjuncts at Duquesne’s McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts did the same. Despite the NLRB’s legal certification of their unions, the schools refused to bargain (and continue to do so), contending that the NLRB had no right to extend union rights to part-time faculty. Other Catholic institutions, including Seattle University, have since embraced the same argument.

To date, legal rulings have rejected this line of reasoning. In a 2014 case, Pacific Lutheran, the NLRB noted that the vast majority of instructors at religiously affiliated institutions are not charged with religious inculcation and have no direct participation in the institution’s religious mission; in effect, it said, the board has as much a duty to protect union rights of instructors as those of janitorial and food-service workers. Nonetheless, many Catholic institutions are continuing their fight against NLRB jurisdiction. Their efforts have received support from the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, among others, which have signed on to an amicus curiae brief opposing NLRB jurisdiction.

The resistance to adjunct unionization among Catholic institutions has recently carried over into opposition to graduate-assistant unionization as well. (Again, they are not alone; among the leading opponents of graduate unionization are Harvard, Yale, and Columbia.) In February 2017, graduate employees at Loyola University of Chicago (LUC) voted to unionize in an NLRB-supervised election. After initially stating their intention to work through the NLRB’s processes and procedures to bargain a contract with the graduate assistants, university officials announced they would challenge graduate employees’ eligibility for union representation. In September 2017, graduate employees at Boston College voted to unionize in an NLRB-supervised election, but officials there challenged their effort.

As of this writing, the graduate-assistant union movement is in a particularly tenuous position. Under Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, NLRB appointees have held that graduate assistants are eligible for union protections; under George W. Bush, appointees held that graduate assistants were merely students and as such had no union rights. The current prevailing ruling on the question was delivered by an Obama-appointed NLRB in 2016 in a case involving Columbia University. It holds that graduate assistants are both students and employees, and that their rights as employees should not be compromised by their enrollment as students. But both university administrators and graduate-assistant union activists anticipate the Donald Trump–appointed NLRB will revert to the Bush-era position.

In order to deny the NLRB a test case that will allow it to again strip graduate assistants of their union rights, graduate assistants at BC, LUC, and many other campuses have formally withdrawn their NLRB recognition petitions, and have sought to get universities to bargain with them without NLRB oversight. They point to the irony of seeing some of the very same Catholic institutions that have railed against NLRB jurisdiction over adjuncts now eagerly awaiting an NLRB decision that might rescue them from having to deal with the growing graduate-assistant union movement.

Georgetown’s stand effectively challenges the most prominent arguments against adjunct and graduate-assistant unionization


This all illustrates why the recent Georgetown-GAGE/AFT election is so important. By agreeing to a union election supervised by a non-governmental entity, the American Arbitration Association, Georgetown has effectively declared that its principles are not hostage to the whims of the NLRB. Should adjuncts and graduate students choose a union, the university has promised to bargain collectively in good faith no matter what a Trump-appointed NLRB might ultimately decide.

Georgetown’s stand effectively challenges the most prominent arguments against adjunct and graduate-assistant unionization. Whereas Catholic institutions have grounded their opposition in the theory that the NLRB has no jurisdiction over instructors, the Georgetown precedent serves as a reminder that if they truly believe in the rights of workers to form unions, Catholic institutions are free to devise their own independent, non-governmental union-certification procedures in negotiation with those unions. To date, no other Catholic campus that has contested NLRB jurisdiction has attempted to negotiate another way to protect employee rights. One might even say of Georgetown that it has adapted the presupposition of St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises—the assumption that one’s dialogue partner holds their views in good faith—to the question of the graduate students’ employment. It has assumed the good faith of the assistants who feel strongly that they are essential employees of the university, and has promised that the institution is prepared to bargain with them as such should they choose a union.

Although it is courageous and precedent-setting, the Georgetown-GAGE/AFT agreement is by no means sui generis. Rather, it is rooted in and grows out of both long-standing Catholic traditions and teachings and the collective discernment of a growing number of Catholic institutions in recent years.

Since Rerum novarum was promulgated in 1891, Catholic social teaching has consistently upheld the rights of workers to form unions and bargain collectively. The U.S. church has never advocated the denial of that right for the lay employees of its institutions. To the contrary, when the U.S. bishops issued their pastoral letter Economic Justice for All in 1986, they embraced the idea that their institutions needed to practice what they preached. The bishops insisted that “all church institutions must also fully recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively with those institutions through whatever association or organization they freely choose.” Over time, many Catholic institutions have taken up the challenge of this teaching. In 2005, for example, Georgetown adopted a Just Employment Policy, in which it pledged that both the university and its contractors would pay a living wage and recognize the rights of employees to unionize. In 2009, members of the bishops’ conference, the union movement, and the Catholic Health Association of the United States worked out a protocol for respecting union rights in Catholic hospitals called Respecting the Just Rights of Workers.

This tradition helped guide the response of a number of Catholic institutions to the adjunct-union movement. When adjuncts began organizing on Georgetown’s campus in 2012, the university adopted a position of neutrality. Rather than disputing the NLRB’s jurisdiction, Provost Robert M. Groves directed anyone with questions about the unionization process to the NLRB’s website. Nor was Georgetown alone in taking a non-conflictual approach to adjunct unionization: St. Louis University, St. Mary’s College of California, St. Michael’s College (Vermont), Dominican University of California, and Trinity Washington University (D.C.) were among the institutions that recognized adjunct unions without resistance. Meanwhile, some other institutions whose first instinct was to resist adjunct unionization have dropped their opposition.

Since Rerum novarum was promulgated in 1891, Catholic social teaching has consistently upheld the rights of workers to form unions and bargain collectively.

After first resisting, Fordham University President Joseph M. McShane, SJ, announced in May 2017 that his administration was prepared to recognize a union of adjuncts, explaining that “organized labor has deep roots in Catholic social justice teachings.” Twenty-seven months after adjuncts and non-tenure-line faculty at LUC voted to unionize, and three weeks after they staged a one-day strike to protest the lack of progress in negotiations, the university and the union finally agreed to a contract, which was ratified on April 26, 2018.

Georgetown’s breakthrough election agreement flows from this process of collective discernment. But it is too early to predict the impact of the agreement. Georgetown’s union election will not be held until the fall, and fights over graduate-assistant unions are taking place on many other campuses. Boston College, LUC, Columbia, Yale, and Harvard either refuse to commit to bargaining with the unions their graduate assistants have chosen in NLRB-supervised elections, or are pursuing appeals in an effort to have their rights to unionize overturned. Columbia’s graduate employees launched a week-long strike on April 24, while those at Boston College staged a “March Against Injustice” on April 27. Nonetheless, there is reason to hope that as the terms of Georgetown’s April 2 agreement are disseminated, it can become a model for a negotiated approach to settling the labor disputes that currently beset higher education.

As rising inequality continues to refashion American society, higher education has served as an increasingly vital portal of upward mobility and the formation of an educated democratic citizenry. It cannot properly serve these functions if the institutions themselves perpetuate inequality and deny their workers democratic rights and a voice over the terms of their labor.

No one contends that collective bargaining will cure higher education of all of its ills. Soaring tuition and fees, exorbitant student debt, and continuing economic uncertainty will no doubt complicate the way forward. But if institutions of higher education cannot honor the dignity and rights of workers, then what hope do we have of addressing growing inequality and the rise of what Pope Francis calls the “economy of exclusion” beyond our campus walls? Catholic institutions need to put their own houses in order and become a force for the creation of an economy that serves human needs and protects human dignity—the vision at the heart of Catholic social teaching.

As they address these challenges, institutions might find themselves “making the road by walking,” as Georgetown and GAGE/AFT have just done. There are bound to be stumbles along the way. But if they fail to move forward to address their growing labor problems through dialogue and negotiation, Catholic colleges and universities can at least be sure of one thing: the “economy of exclusion” will continue to reshape their practices in its own idolatrous image, transforming these venerable vehicles of the faith’s intellectual tradition into living contradictions of Catholic social teaching. That would be a great tragedy for both the church and the larger world it seeks to serve.

Joseph A. McCartin is the executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor at Georgetown University, and vice president of the Labor and Working-Class History Association.

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