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Unionization push by PLU faculty could have national implications

Disclosure: Pacific Lutheran University holds the license for KPLU. KPLU’s programming staffers are the university’s only unionized employees.

Pacific Lutheran University is trying to fend off attempts by members of its faculty to unionize, and the outcome could have national implications.

The push is coming from “contingent faculty,” the non-tenure track professors, lecturers and instructors who teach about a third of PLU’s course credits. Those people get paid significantly less than regular faculty, and their employment status is much shakier.

The arrangement is not uncommon, as many universities lean heavily on contingent faculty. But at PLU, they want to do something about it. The faculty members want to join the Service Employees International Union to gain more control over their working conditions.

The university is pushing back, in a case that could help rewrite the law about who can join a union.

Church and state

The key question is this: PLU is a religiously-affiliated university. How much can the federal government meddle in its affairs—in this case, to guarantee workers’ right to organize? PLU Provost Steve Starkovich pointed to the separation of church and state.

“It’s our responsibility to defend our first amendment rights, and I think it would be irresponsible not to challenge jurisdiction on that point,” he said.

Starkovich spoke at the end of the third day of hearings on the matter before the National Labor Relations Board in Seattle.

The Board has long had jurisdiction over religiously-affiliated groups that aren’t explicitly about religion, which could arguably include PLU.

“Religion never comes up in my courses,” said Jane Harty, a music lecturer at PLU since 1978. “There’s no religious requirement for students to be admitted to PLU. It’s a weak case.”

But a recent legal ruling has called into question whether the labor board can consider those points. The court found the board was intruding too deeply into matters of faith in sorting out the “really religious” from the “sort of religious.”

Changing the rules

Seattle University assistant professor of law Charlotte Garden says new rules could be on their way.

“It would make it virtually impossible for employees at any religious college or university to form a union under the [National Labor Relations Act],” Garden said.

That would be a blow to contingent faculty, like PLU’s Jane Harty. She said after 35 years, she makes just $11,000 a year for a half-time job. She said she’s never taken a leave and has even skipped taking medical leaves for fear of losing her tenuous employment.

“It just seemed like unionization was going to be the only way we could make progress. Personally I don’t want the next generation of faculty to have the working life that I have had. It’s not sustainable,” Harty said.

The decision rests with the National board in Washington, D.C., but there will be plenty of opportunities for legal challenges.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.