The government just gave the green light for unionized university professors

Labor unions received an early Christmas present when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a decision allowing adjunct faculty at Pacific Lutheran University to unionize.

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The ruling could pave the way for a more widespread unionization of faculties at many different private colleges.

The ruling, is a victory for the Service Employees International Union, which filed a petition before the NLRB against the liberal arts college in Tacoma, Washington, seeking to organize its adjuncts.

This shakes up the labor situation for faculty at private colleges and universities, which has largely been controlled by the 1980 Supreme Court ruling NLRB v. Yeshiva University. In that case, the court ruled that tenure-track faculty members could be blocked from organizing because they held “managerial” positions, based on the fact they wielded substantial decision-making authority that made them more than simply salaried employees.

Last Friday’s decision, however, holds that managerial status cannot simply be assumed of every full-time faculty member, but instead must be based on an analysis of what sort of administrative and decision-making powers faculty have. Faculty may still be classed as managers if they have significant influence over personnel decisions, academic programs, or a school’s finances, but where those powers are more limited, as is often the case with adjunct faculty, a university can’t classify its workers as managers. The NLRB also placed the burden on universities to prove that a faculty’s authority is genuine, and not merely a paper power that doesn’t exist in practice.

The ruling is a major blow to university administrators, who filed an amicus brief in the case strongly urging the NLRB not to allow faculty unionization. If the ruling holds up, it could raise the specter of labor strife in one of the few areas of American education that has largely been free of it.

The ruling also reflects the changing nature of American higher education, where schools are more centeralized and have ever-increasing amounts of power concentrated in a small number of administrators, while faculty are more likely to hold contingent positions that are unlikely to ever lead to tenure.. The NLRB itself cited this ongoing “corporatization” of education as a key justification for its ruling.

Another component of the ruling is a determination on the labor rights of employees at religious colleges. The NLRB now maintains that a religious college can only use its religious status to block unionization of employees who serve some kind of religious function. In the case of Pacific Lutheran, the employees were ruled to have a purely secular purpose, not crucial to “creating or maintaining the university’s religious educational environment. The ruling could pave the way for successful unionization at several other religious colleges.

The 3-2 decision is not final, as it will almost certainly be challenged in federal court.

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