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Wednesday, December 24, 2014 - Page updated at 09:30 a.m.

NLRB: Teachers on lower rung of college’s 2-tier system can unionize

By Katherine Long
Seattle Times higher education reporter

A federal labor ruling that gives the go-ahead for Pacific Lutheran University’s (PLU) adjunct faculty members to form a union may also clear the way for college instructors at other private colleges to unionize.

The decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last week found that the private Tacoma university could not bar its adjunct faculty from forming a union.

Union officials said they believed the decision would clear the way for impounded union ballots to also be counted at Seattle University, where contingent faculty voted on joining Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 925 in April. The two cases, according to SEIU 925, are nearly identical.

Seattle University officials said they were reviewing the PLU ruling and awaiting a decision on their case. They would not comment on the similarity of the two cases.

Adjuncts — often also called contingent faculty — now make up at least half the higher-education workforce nationwide, according to some studies. They are not eligible for tenure, and teach anything from one class each quarter to a full-time slate of courses. They usually make less money than tenured professors and often have fewer benefits.

PLU contingent faculty voted last year on whether to join SEIU 925, and the votes were immediately impounded by the NLRB after PLU appealed. The labor board’s decision, released late Friday, means that “finally, we get to count our ballots,” said contingent faculty member Jane Harty, a PLU music teacher. “We’ve been waiting over a year to do that.”

The NLRB ruled 3-2 in favor of allowing contingent faculty to organize. PLU could still appeal the decision in federal court. University officials said they would make a decision on whether to appeal after the votes are counted.

Harty described the current system at PLU and many other colleges as a “two-tier system” where adjuncts have significantly less of a voice, make less money and often labor under inferior working conditions. For example, the building where she teaches doesn’t have hot water or Internet access.

“It’s not a collegial place to work,” she said.

PLU spokeswoman Donna Gibbs said 39 of the university’s 176 contingent faculty members are full-time and make between $33,000 and $100,000, plus benefits. She said the university is concerned that if some members of the faculty are governed by a union contract and others are not, “this essentially splits the faculty in two.”

About 211 of PLU’s faculty have tenure or are on the tenure track. Gibbs said a union contract that lumps all contingent faculty together “equates the full-time, full professor who teaches six classes and does research, with the person who teaches one course, and has no requirement to be engaged in research or additional service to the university.”

She said all contingent faculty had a voice in PLU’s faculty assembly, which is in charge of creating and adopting faculty governance at PLU. In addition, about 22 percent of contingent faculty can vote in the faculty assembly.

In its decision, the NLRB rejected two of PLU’s arguments: that the school was exempt from national labor rules because it is a religious institution, and because full-time adjuncts were managerial employees. Both of those arguments relied on precedents established either by prior NLRB cases, or by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In its decision, the NLRB wrote that it was not enough for the school to be a religious institution to be exempt from labor rules; the faculty could not be denied the right to collective bargaining unless they were carrying out a religious function. And, the NLRB ruled that faculty could not be denied the right to unionize if they were not involved in the management of the college.

A number of other religious colleges and universities around the country have appealed to the NLRB after contingent faculty sought to form a union in the past two years.

Harty said she thought the board may have chosen to rule on the PLU case first because it sought to include full-time contingent faculty in the bargaining unit.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.

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