Last month, the National Labor Relations Board issued an important ruling that promises to land in the courts. The ensuing decision may be as momentous as the Yeshiva case of 1980, which determined that tenured and tenure-track faculty members have managerial status and cannot unionize. The new ruling opens the way for more professors in post-secondary institutions to unionize, including religious schools.
Administrators are wondering what it portends, particularly whether it means a more troublesome faculty work force. But those at religious might also ask a policy question: Should they have allowed professors to work at their institution in complete independence of the religious identity of the school?
I know several scholars who teach at prominent religious colleges, but have no religious commitments in their work at all. If you suggested to them that they should subscribe to the religious mission of their respective schools, they would reject the idea out of hand, citing academic freedom or the norms of their discipline.
The attitude is shared by many administrators as well, and it marks their precise point of vulnerability. As reported at Inside Higher Ed, the Board has ruled that teachers may unionize at religious colleges even if the colleges have disallowed unionization on religious grounds. Colleges may prevent unionization only if teachers are charged with actively maintaining the religious mission of the college. The story notes:
Another part of the ruling said that just because a college is religious doesn’t mean that its faculty members can’t unionize. The NLRB said that a religious college would need to show that “it holds out the petitioned-for faculty members as performing a religious function. This requires a showing by the college or university that it holds out those faculty as performing a specific role in creating or maintaining the university’s religious educational environment.”
This poses a serious challenge to religious colleges. While they object to the decision as an infringement of religious liberty, the ruling in fact accepts that religious colleges enjoy a special standing. It is the colleges themselves that have undermined that standing. The ruling continues:
Faculty members who are not expected to perform a specific role in creating or maintaining the school’s religious educational environment are indistinguishable from faculty at colleges and universities which do not identify themselves as religious institutions and which are indisputably subject to the board’s jurisdiction. Both faculty provide nonreligious instruction and are hired, fired, and assessed under criteria that do not implicate religious considerations.
How, then, does the unionization of teachers with no religious aspect to their duties compromise the religious mission of the school? It’s hard to avoid an uncomfortable conclusion. Religious schools that have allowed teachers increasingly to regard their jobs as wholly separate from religious beliefs, values, and instruction have brought this development upon themselves.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.