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Trump-Era Ruling Weakened Unions at Religious Colleges. Labor Is Fighting Back.

Trump’s NLRB removed board authority over religiously affiliated colleges, allowing unions to be weakened.

Trees surround a building on the Edward Waters University on Sunday, September 24, 2023, in Jacksonville, Florida.

Kenneth Davis, an associate professor at Edward Waters University (EWU) — a private Christian and historically Black college in Jacksonville, Florida — says he was shocked and dismayed when he received a letter informing him that the college’s administration was withdrawing recognition of the labor union that had represented the school’s faculty for more than three decades.

In addition to teaching about the criminal legal system at EWU, Davis is also the president of the American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) chapter at his university, which was founded in 1866 by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. The sudden blow to the faculty’s union recognition left him both angry and stunned.

The letter that Davis received, which was sent by A. Zachary Faison Jr., the president and CEO of the college, was dated May 9, 2022, and it followed a 2020 decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Bethany College 369 NLRB No. 98, that removed board jurisdiction over religiously affiliated colleges and universities. That decision, promulgated by Trump appointees to the NLRB, potentially extends to more than 900 U.S. colleges that list religious affiliations and enroll approximately 1.8 million students.

“By this letter, Edward Waters University formally withdraws recognition of the Edward Waters chapter of the AAUP,” Faison’s two-paragraph letter stated. “As a religious educational institution and an affiliate of the African Methodist Episcopal church, it is the university’s first amendment right to uphold its Christian values in the pursuit of academic excellence.”

The rest of the Edward Waters University faculty got word of the decision through a second letter, this one signed by provost Donna H. Oliver. “The move,” Oliver wrote, “will allow EWU to be driven by its faith-based Christian mission, rather than the political agendas often associated with federal labor policies.”

“The administration waited until the last day of the school year, when they thought faculty would be running for the door, to send the letters out,” Davis told Truthout. “By that point, we’d been in contract negotiations for a year-and-a-half but we had no idea that this was coming. Since then, we’ve been holding meetings and events and sent a letter of protest to the bishop of the AME church. We’ve also hired a lawyer.”

What’s more, the EWU union has moved beyond the campus to join AAUP activists in other parts of the state. The goal? To oppose attacks on academic freedom, tenure and shared governance at public colleges and universities. “We are pushing forward despite the political climate in Florida,” Davis said. “Unions and workers are waking up. Before the Bethany decision, faculty unions were sleepwalking, but the decision slapped us in the face. We are now taking the initiative to defend union faculty, not just at AME colleges and HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities], but everywhere.”

EWU is not the only faculty union at a religiously affiliated school that has been decertified since the Bethany decision was promulgated: Administrators at Saint Leo University, Wilberforce University and Saint Xavier-Chicago have used the decision to smash long-standing campus unions. Moreover, attempts to organize new unions of adjunct faculty, grad students, dining and culinary staff, groundskeepers and maintenance workers at Catholic-run Boston College, Duquesne University, Manhattan College and Loyola University-New Orleans have been rebuffed. Meanwhile, contract negotiations at numerous schools affiliated with a range of Protestant denominations have stalled and sputtered.

“It is very disturbing to see religious institutions do this,” Joseph A. McCartin, professor of history and executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, told Truthout. “It’s a question of power. Religiously affiliated colleges function in much the same way as private industry. Administrators don’t want to be accountable to staff and basically operate as hedge funds with a university attached.”

According to McCartin, over the past 25 years, college boards of trustees have become dominated by those with finance, insurance and real estate backgrounds. “These are not people who want unions. NLRB decisions have gone back and forth on support for organizing in religious workplaces, which has sowed confusion and been detrimental to workers and unions,” he said.

Rev. Liz Theoharis, chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, agrees. “This is about business and politics, not religion,” she told Truthout. “Campus organizing is a labor justice fight. Religious institutions often use a tactic called ‘exceptionalism’ to oppose workers’ rights, basically arguing that they don’t need laws or regulations because they already have workers’ interests in mind. But there is no biblical basis for opposing labor. In fact, the opposite is true.”

The Hebrew Bible, particularly Deuteronomy, she explains, is explicit in its support for policies that provide concrete benefits to workers, from rules regarding fair and timely pay, to provisions for the care of those unable to work. “It’s an incredibly anti-religious position for religiously affiliated colleges and universities to say that they don’t need unions,” Theoharis said. “The Bible makes clear that the care of workers and the poor should not be left to the whims of the rich.”

Catholic theology is similarly injunctive. Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum encyclical, delivered in 1891, states that, “Some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working classes.… Working men’s [sic] associations should be so organized and governed as to furnish the best and most suitable means to help each individual member to better his condition to the utmost in body, soul and property.”

Elite Christians often don’t want to pay their fair share, Theoharis concludes. “Our ancient ancestors recognized this thousands of years ago and noted that institutions and bosses do not always act in the interests of working and poor people.” This, she argues, is why the Bible champions the disenfranchised and supports and protects workers’ interests.

Chilling Workers’ Rights

In the Bethany College case, the NLRB did the opposite. According to that decision, faculty at colleges and universities are no longer subject to NLRB jurisdiction if they “hold themselves out to the public as religious institutions,” are nonprofit, and maintain ties to a religious sponsoring organization. As the board saw it, allowing the NLRB to exert control over faculty amounted to government entanglement in religious affairs, something that is barred by the First Amendment.

This was a reversal of the standard determined by Pacific Lutheran University; in that 2015 decision, the NLRB ruled that only faculty who perform overtly religious functions as a job requirement are exempt from board authority.

But let’s return to Bethany College, 1 of 26 colleges and universities run by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The Lindsborg, Kansas, college opened in 1881 and is operated by the Central States Lutheran Synod and the Arkansas/Oklahoma Synod of the ELCA. According to its webpage, the school is open to students of all faiths and offers a host of liberal arts and other majors.

The case that wound its way to the NLRB was brought by two historians, Tom Jorsch and Lisa Guinn, because they believed that Bethany administrators had violated fair labor practices. They say that the claim had nothing whatsoever to do with religion.

The pair, who are married, arrived at Bethany College in 2014. Jorsch was on a full-time tenure line; Guinn was an adjunct. After three years on campus, Jorsch came up for tenure and was unanimously approved by his department. It was 2017.

“I was told that I had to meet with the college president before it became official,” Jorsch told Truthout. “I went into the meeting enthusiastically, with a list of things I planned to do over the next few years.”

But the meeting did not go as Jorsch expected, and instead of a pro-forma rubber stamp on the decision, he was told that he was not getting tenure because of never specified “collegiality issues.”

“I never knew the reason for the denial,” Jorsch said. Distressed by what had unfolded, he says that he asked people to speak to the college president on his behalf and consulted with the Kansas AAUP about his options. “Bethany faculty are not unionized, so the AAUP could not represent me, but they referred me to an attorney. I was also eventually told that if I went to anger management classes, I’d be allowed to stay on.”

In response, he says, “I wrote a long letter, laying out what I saw as the issues, and sent it to the entire faculty over email. Within an hour, I was cut off from the university listserv. A few days later, I got a letter saying I was fired.”

Guinn lost access to university email a half-day later; both took their cases to the NLRB, alleging unfair labor practices. Bethany College responded by saying that the NLRB lacked authority over college decision-making because of the college’s religious affiliation.

Although both Jorsch and Guinn are now employed elsewhere — he at Oklahoma State and she at Tulsa Community College — they remain deeply scarred by what happened at Bethany. “We felt like pariahs after the firing. People looked at us like we were damaged goods. And even though we’re now making more money than we earned at Bethany, it does not feel like success,” Jorsch said. “Bethany used religion like a cudgel, but religion had nothing to do with what happened to us. The Pacific Lutheran decision made a lot of sense and we never intended to challenge it. We still feel bad about bringing the case that killed that standard.”

That said, labor activists stress that if the NLRB could reverse course on its authority over faculty at religious colleges once, it can do so again, and they are holding out hope that the five-member board will reverse the Bethany decision in the not-too-distant future. They’re also continuing to organize students and workers at religiously affiliated schools and have launched numerous campaigns for worker justice. At Georgetown, for example, a 2021 effort to ensure that items embossed with the university logo are not made in sweatshops was successful. Likewise, organizing among graduate students, adjuncts, food service, and other support staff has ramped up throughout the country — at both religiously affiliated and secular institutions.

It’s also worth noting that at least some religious colleges and universities have been less overtly and persistently hostile to labor organizing. Mark Naison, a professor of history and African American studies at Fordham University, told Truthout that his university’s new president is “extremely forward-thinking and progressive.”

“Recognizing the grad student union was definitely an important step for the school. Our previous president also recognized a union of adjuncts and contingent faculty; Fordham’s record on unionization is better than most universities,” Naison said. “Fordham has also been the site of strong anti-racism initiatives in recent years, so that fits a larger pattern of commitment to social justice.”

However, opposition to labor rights characterizes many of these institutions. As McCartin told Truthout, “A lot of religious colleges are marginal in terms of economic stability, but in my view, it should not matter whether there is a big endowment or not. Either you believe in the right of workers to bargain for fair salaries and benefits or you don’t.”

Those colleges that believe themselves exempt from labor law, he continues, are hiding behind religion. “Colleges and universities can give their workers the right to union representation. If they want to make sure that the separation of church and state is maintained while honoring church teachings, they can work with the privately run American Arbitration Association, rather than the government-run NLRB, to schedule and monitor union elections. If they refuse to do this, they are abandoning religion in favor of a corporatist worldview.”

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