Court says Duquesne not under labor board's authority

Friday, February 07, 2020 - Updated: 12:12 pm

By Carol Zimmermann Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — A Jan. 28 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington said the National Labor Relations Board could not order a Pittsburgh Catholic university to approve an adjunct faculty union.

The 2-1 decision reversed a previous ruling by the NLRB ordering Duquesne University to bargain with the faculty group.

In 2018, a three-member NLRB panel sided with the agency’s regional office which said in 2017 that the university had to recognize and bargain with the union. The university challenged the decision with the federal appeals court, arguing that the university’s religious affiliation removed it from the NLRB’s jurisdiction.

The ruling said the NLRB’s order went against a 1979 Supreme Court decision in NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, which rejected the labor group’s attempt to expand its reach to include religious institutions, stressing that problems can arise when a government office tries to determine if certain activities are religious or not.

The appeals court also said NLRB’s attempt to put a religious institution such as Duquesne under its jurisdiction would lead to “the sort of intrusive inquiry” the Supreme Court warned against, saying the labor board could end up “trolling through the beliefs of the university” to make determinations about its religious mission and if certain faculty members contribute to that mission.

Vincentian Father Dennis Holtschneider, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, told Catholic News Service Jan. 29 that although the case started as a union issue, it became something much bigger.

He said the association did not take a position on unions, which he noted that many Catholic colleges have. What was at stake in this years-long battle, he said, was government agencies determining what part of a group is Catholic. “The government can’t substitute its judgment for ours as to what’s religious,” he said.

The concern here is broader, he added, noting that if a government agency can tell a Catholic college what to do, they might also do the same for a Catholic health group or social service agency.

Duquesne University spokesman Gabriel Welsch said the university is pleased with the appeals court ruling, which reflects the culmination of an eight-year legal challenge over the NLRB’s assertion of jurisdiction over Duquesne.

“The university is grateful that the court recognized the importance of our religious mission in rendering this significant decision,” he said in a statement.

Welsch said the university’s president, Ken Gormley, “has consistently emphasized that adjunct faculty members are extremely important members of the university community” and now with the “question of NLRB jurisdiction” resolved, Gormley is “committed to taking a fresh look at how the university engages with its adjunct faculty.”

He added that the university has a “deep respect and appreciation for unions,” noting that four different unions represent several hundred nonfaculty employees on campus.

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