Labor Board Sets New Tests for Whether Private-College Faculty Members Can Unionize

From Chronicle of Higher Education:

The National Labor Relations Board has made it easier for faculty members at religious colleges—and private colleges as a whole—to unionize.

In a 3-to-2 decision last week involving contingent faculty members at Pacific Lutheran University, the board laid out new standards for deciding two of the most-divisive questions in academic-labor law: whether a college’s religious nature should exempt it from NLRB jurisdiction, and whether faculty members have too much involvement in the management of their colleges to be considered as employees eligible for union representation.

A regional official of the NLRB ruled last year that adjuncts at Pacific Lutheran could move to unionize. The full labor board later agreed to review the case, and in February it solicited input on both of the questions that were central to the dispute.

The NLRB’s majority came down squarely in favor of the labor organizers seeking to unionize contingent faculty members at Pacific Lutheran on both counts.

Focusing, for the first time, on the question of whether the college characterizes the faculty members at issue as involved in religious indoctrination, the board held that the role played by Pacific Lutheran’s contingent faculty members was too secular for federal oversight of their union election to be seen as an infringement of Pacific Lutheran’s academic freedom.

The board's majority conducted a detailed analysis of what roles contingent faculty members played and how much power they actually had. It concluded that it was left with “little doubt that the contingent faculty simply do not, and in fact cannot, control or effectively control relevant decision making” there.

Such faculty members “tend to have a limited voice in university governance, if they have a role at all,” partly because Pacific Lutheran provides few mechanisms for them to express their concerns, and partly because they are not given enough job security or information about their basic rights to feel comfortable speaking up, the majority held.

Although the board sent the case back to a regional NLRB officer for further proceedings, it seems likely that the federal courts will be asked to review last week’s decision and assess whether the board had overstepped its bounds under the U.S. Constitution.

Read the full story here.