Labor board sides with PLU faculty in unionization push

Jun 10, 2013

Disclosure: Pacific Lutheran University holds the license for KPLU. The station’s on-air staffers form the university’s only unionized unit.

In a decision with national implications, labor relations officials have ruled that certain faculty at Pacific Lutheran University should be allowed to form a union. This case is a test of some new provisions in labor law, and is being followed by other universities around the country.

It centers on so-called contingent faculty at PLU, the fill-in or adjunct instructors who teach a third of the university’s credit hours.

The faculty members say they’re underpaid and have no job security, and they want to vote on whether to form a union. Administrators have fought that effort, saying, among other things, the university is a religious institution and therefore lies outside the National Labor Relations Board’s jurisdiction.

Now the NLRB’s northwest region has finally weighed in, and they’re siding with the faculty.

“PLU contingent faculty are on the edge of the curve here,” said Senior Lecturer Jane Harty of the music department. “This is a national debate about what to do about beleaguered adjunct contingent faculty who are paid very poorly. This is a way to make progress for our profession and actually to save it.”

How religious are you?

One of the major legal questions has to do with what qualifies an employer as a religious institution. In this case, the NLRB found that PLU does not qualify because there are no religious requirements for students or faculty and no mention of religion in the mission statement, among other things.

Legal challenges have called into question whether the Board can weigh those factors. That’s likely to be one major basis for the university’s appeal, which PLU spokeswoman Edie Disler said is in the works.

“To us it’s kind of hard to say that you are not a religiously affiliated institution when you're actually owned by the Lutheran church,” Disler said.

More legal questions

Meanwhile, Disler said PLU will help facilitate the union vote, which could come as early as this fall. The NLRB in Washington, D.C. could still order the university to delay the election or the vote counting.

And even the Board’s final decision may not actually be final. The Board itself is under a legal cloud, regarding whether its members were properly appointed. That question is likely to be decided by the U. S. Supreme Court.