Union wants a new start in organizing PLU temporary faculty

A union campaigning to organize part-time and temporary faculty at Parkland’s Pacific Lutheran University has withdrawn its petition to represent those employees.

The Service Employees International Union’s decision was a strategic move, the union said, to get a fresh start to its organizing campaign and to avoid further legal expenses and delays over the results of a 15-month-old union election whose ballots were only recently counted.

The university Thursday said it welcomed the withdrawal because it will allow the school to resume its effort to improve working conditions for contingent faculty begun in the spring of 2013. The university suspended those discussions under law while the union organizing effort took place.

“It’s back to business as usual,” said Donna Gibbs, vice president of marketing and communications for PLU.

The National Labor Relations Board last week counted the ballots in a union election held in October 2013 over the issue of union representation of PLU’s contingent faculty.

The ballots were sealed and remained uncounted until recently while the university challenged the NLRB’s authority to enforce labor laws at the religiously affiliated school.

Shortly before Christmas, the board ruled that while PLU was church-affiliated, its contingent faculty were not exempt from labor laws because their jobs did not have a specific religious purpose.

Of the votes counted, the 30 were cast in favor of the union; 54 were cast in favor of the university and its stance that the union was unnecessary.

But 38 votes remained uncounted, challenged by the university or the union or both.

The union, Service Employees International Union Local 925, said sorting out those challenges could be long and expensive and could lead to a new election. The task of determining what ballots were valid in that election is complicated because the labor board offices shut down for two weeks during the midst of the election because Congress was stalemated over the federal budget.

When the board reopened, the ballots that had been received during the closure were all stamped as received on Oct. 13, 2013 — after the deadline for the board to have received them. Other challenges were lodged because the board mistakenly sent out two sets of ballots and because some votes were returned in nonstandard envelopes.

“The process of resolving unrelenting challenges from the PLU administration amidst a flawed election would be a long and costly process,” according to the union.

“Faculty could actually get to a new election faster and with less legal expense if faculty proceed to a second vote with those currently teaching at PLU,” the union said in a press release.

The contingent faculty, who are hired on a course-by-course basis, claimed they are underpaid despite the fact that many of them have comparable academic credentials as tenured faculty members. They further complained that some are ineligible for benefits and that their job security was nil because of the temporary nature of their assignments.

PLU countered that it had already taken steps to improve the lot of contingent faculty members.

The PLU organizing case could have implications for temporary academic employees nationwide working for private or religious schools because it could set a precedent for organizing those groups.