Duquesne's bogus claim: It agreed to hold a union election, then conjured an exemption
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Duquesne University's campaign to thwart the union-organizing efforts of its adjunct professors has been in direct contravention of Catholic and Christian teachings. Indeed, the university's claim that it needs to fend off the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board to protect its religious freedom is disingenuous and hypocritical.
Catholic Canon Law requires institutions such as Duquesne to both treat its workers fairly and to honor the governing, civil labor laws. Thus, Canon 1286 requires that such institutions "in the employment of workers are to observe meticulously also the civil laws concerning labor and social policy, according to the principles handed on by the Church." It further requires that they "are to pay a just and decent wage to employees so that they are able to provide fittingly for their own needs and those of their dependents." Duquesne is not honoring either of these mandates.
First of all, Duquesne does not pay a living wage to its adjunct professors, the vast majority of whom have doctorate degrees. Adjunct professors at Duquesne teaching a full course load make between $10,000 and $15,000 a year without any benefits. In addition, they have no job security. Duquesne decides semester-to-semester whether it will retain an adjunct, and it is quite typical that an adjunct will learn a week or two before a given semester that he or she does not have a job. This, despite the fact that Duquesne, an ostensible nonprofit, had a $50 million surplus last year. It is in light of this abysmal treatment that the adjuncts came to the United Steelworkers to help them organize a union.
The adjuncts themselves did the lion's share of the organizing and gathered a strong majority of union cards showing support for a union at Duquesne. Those signed cards in hand, the adjuncts and the USW went to Duquesne and suggested that the university recognize the union, without NLRB involvement. We further suggested that the cards be reviewed by a neutral party who could verify whether the union had majority support.
In response, Duquesne rejected the union's offer to handle the recognition process outside NLRB processes. On the contrary, the university insisted that this matter be handled through the NLRB. Moreover, in response to public statements the USW had made about Duquesne's duty to live up to Catholic teaching regarding fair treatment of workers, the university chastised us, pointing out that Duquesne has a bargaining relationship with four unions with which it was negotiating contracts.
Duquesne said it understands its duties under both Catholic Church teaching and the National Labor Relations Act to fairly negotiate with certified bargaining representatives. Indeed, Duquesne has been bargaining with unions, under NLRB supervision, since 1982. Since that time, Duquesne has voluntarily consented to NLRB jurisdiction three times.
Meanwhile, the USW, at the urging of Duquesne, filed a petition for election with the NLRB. Duquesne, through both its local outside lawyer and in-house general counsel, negotiated with us over a stipulation for a NLRB-supervised election and entered into a written contract with the USW for such an election.
Then, just one week before the election Duquesne not only consented to, but indeed insisted upon, the university, through a new lawyer based in Memphis who specializes in keeping work places "union free," filed a motion to withdraw from the election stipulation, claiming a religious exemption. On the same day, Duquesne President Charles J. Dougherty informed Duquesne employees via email that Duquesne had just successfully reached agreements with its four existing unions.
Region 6 of the NLRB, based in Pittsburgh, properly rejected Duquesne's motion to withdraw. As the regional office explained, "The Employer acknowledges the well-established rule that 'once an election agreement has been approved, a party may withdraw therefrom only from an affirmative showing of unusual circumstances or by agreement of the parties.' " The regional office reasonably concluded that Duquesne could not show "unusual circumstances" because Duquesne was no more religious now than when it had signed the stipulation three weeks before.
Duquesne's attempt to renege on its agreement to an NLRB election has no basis in any accepted ethical code, religious or secular, which requires parties to honor their agreements. And far from attempting to shield itself from secular law, Duquesne has cunningly employed real-world, union-busting lawyers to prevent the unionization of its adjuncts.
It is not the NLRB which threatens Duquesne's professed Catholic values, but Duquesne's own conduct in invoking its religious faith to act against its own religious tenets, which require it to act honestly and to treat its workers fairly and with dignity.
First Published June 22, 2012 12:00 am