Contingent faculty at Pacific Lutheran University can unionize, national board rules

Faculty hired on a course-by-course basis are free to unionize at Pacific Lutheran University, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled in a decision with national implications for institutions with religious affiliations.

In the long-awaited ruling, the board ruled that while PLU is an institution providing a religious environment, the so-called “contingent faculty” did not perform a religious function and thus are able to form a union and are subject to labor law.

The board also ruled that the university’s contention that some of the contingent faculty members were managers was not supported by the facts. PLU had argued that it was exempt from labor law as a religious institution and that contingent faculty members who were managers were ineligible to represented by a union.

While the board’s decision could lead to unionization of the the university’s 152 contingent faculty members, its larger effect is setting a new labor law standard by which employees of religiously affiliated institutions such as universities will be governed.

The board established a new two-part standard that requires the religious institution to prove that it not only provides a religious education environment but also that the employees seeking to unionize performed a specific religious function. If the institution meets those two standards, then those employees were not governed by federal labor laws.

The board’s ruling, released over the weekend, grew from an effort that began two years ago to organize PLU contingent faculty members under the auspices of the Service Employees International Union Local 925. The NLRB’s regional director had ruled that the contingent employees were eligible to be represented by the union, but the university appealed that decision to the full board.

Meanwhile, a union election was held at PLU more than a year ago, but the ballots have remained sealed and uncounted while the board pondered its decision. Jia-Jia Zhu, a spokesman for the union, said lawyers still have to decide when the sequestered ballots are to be counted. If a majority of those voting in that election approved the union, then the union will represent them in talks with the university.

“I hope our administration will finally choose to talk to us about our working conditions rather than continuing to spend tens of thousands of education dollars pursuing an anti-union legal strategy,” said Jane Harty, a music lecturer at PLU, in a news release Monday.

In a statement on the school’s website, PLU Provost Steven Starkovich said the school was still studying the ruling.

The ruling “appears to radically depart from at least 30 years of precedent, and it appears to have exactly the same constitutional defects as the prior, now discredited, test. It smacks of changing the rules in the middle of the game,” Starkovich said. “We understand that the next step is to count the ballots and that PLU has no avenue to appeal this decision until the election results are final.”

Harty said the mood among contingent faculty is “cautious optimism.”

Many of those temporary workers, she said, have been intimidated by the university’s aggressive campaign against unionization.

“We’re just beginning to peek out of our foxholes now,” she said.

The university contended in its campaign that it was already taking action to address some of the issues raised by the union organizers when the unionizing campaign began.

PLU pays its contingent faculty members more per course than other regional universities, the school said.

“In recent years, less than 9 percent of credit hours were taught by part-time faculty teaching individual courses without benefits, or taught as private hourly music instruction,” the university said. “According to data gathered by the Chronicle of Higher Education, universities in the Puget Sound area pay approximately $2,300-$5,000 per course. PLU’s per course pay ranges between $4,200-$5,600 per course. The only faculty members paid hourly are those who provide private music instruction. They are paid $51.00 per hour.” For comparison, the minimum wage in Washington state is the highest in the nation; it will increase to $9.47 on January 1, 2015.

Harty said that contingent faculty members are still “hugely underpaid” despite possessing similar educational degrees and experience as tenured faculty members.

Harty said that like many other contingent faculty, she works other jobs to earn a livable income.