PLU contingent faculty reject union, but results not final

A critical decision over unionization of contingent faculty members at Parkland’s Pacific Lutheran University was supposed to be decided Thursday when ballots in a union election, sealed for 15 months while the rival sides argued over legal issues, were finally counted.

But the tally settled nothing because the university and the union collectively challenged the validity of 38 of the ballots cast.

Those ballots remained sealed and uncounted Friday while the National Labor Relations Board decides whether they were properly cast.

That process could take months and could lead to an entirely new election if the board decides there is no way to determine whether the contested ballots were cast by the voting deadline 15 months ago, Oct. 10, 2013. Both sides have seven days from Thursday to lodge a formal appeal.

Many of the contested ballots were challenged because they bore the NLRB time stamp of Oct. 17, 2013, a week after the deadline for the ballots to be cast, said Donna Gibbs, vice president of marketing and communication for the university.

But whether those votes were timely cast may be unknowable because the NLRB offices, like many federal offices, were shut down between Oct. 1 and Oct. 16 in 2013 because of a budget standoff in Congress.

For now, PLU is celebrating a tentative victory based on the incomplete count that gave the union 30 votes and the university, which said the union was unnecessary, 54 votes.

“We are gratified that the faculty of PLU have voted to support our unique system of shared governance — in which all full-time faculty members, tenure line and contingent alike — have full voice and vote in the Faculty Assembly,” said Steven P. Starkovich, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at PLU. “We believe our robust, general assembly style of faculty governance can serve as a model for other universities. And we are committed to continuing the work underway since March 2013 to address the concerns of contingent faculty through PLU’s Faculty Governance Committee and the Contingent Faculty Task Force.”

The union said the delay in counting was the university’s responsibility.

“The final vote count is pending because the PLU administration has delayed the process by challenging dozens of faculty ballots. This election is a step in our long, ongoing journey to improve working lives for faculty and quality of education for students,” said contingent faculty member Jane Harty, a union activist.

”If the result continues to give PLU the edge after the NLRB decides the fate of the uncounted ballots, the election will be the first major victory for the university after a series of legal defeats.

The university had appealed the unionization effort both to the NLRB regional director and then to the national labor board, saying that as a religiously based institution, the labor board had no jurisdiction over labor affairs at the school. The institution had also claimed that many of those the union sought to include within its ranks were management employees ineligible to join the union, Service Employees International Union Local 925.

In mid-December, the National Labor Relations Board ruled against PLU, saying that while the school had religious roots, it failed to show that the employees involved were actively involved in religious education and thus exempt from labor law.

Contingent faculty members serve the university on a course-by-course basis. They are hired to teach based on the demand for subjects and to fill in for full-time faculty members on leave. The unionization movement grew from complaints from some of those scholarly “temps” that they were underpaid for their work, enjoyed few if any benefits and had no job security year-to-year as did tenured faculty members.

Some contingent faculty said they had advanced degrees and years of teaching experience but were not commensurately rewarded for their expertise and experience.

PLU countered that it used proportionally fewer contingent faculty members than many other local universities and that it was actively addressing the issues that had triggered the union effort.

The union spent months organizing at the university before the election while the university sought to derail the organizing efforts by taking up the issues raised by contingent faculty members in discussion with university leaders.

The PLU organizing efforts, if successful, could lay the groundwork for other unionization efforts at religiously affiliated higher education institutions across the country.