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Duquesne University tries to cast off federal oversight

In a move union officials immediately branded as unethical, Duquesne University on Friday filed a motion with the National Labor Relations Board challenging its jurisdiction over the university and its labor affairs, saying Duquesne is a religious institution and therefore exempt from NLRB oversight.

In the motion, Duquesne seeks to withdraw from its May agreement to allow the United Steelworkers to oversee an election by part-time faculty who want to organize under the USW.

Duquesne officials said in a news release that the school maintains it qualifies for a religious exemption from the jurisdiction of the NLRB, which faces other such challenges.

“Our Catholic identity is at the core of who we are and everything we do as an institution,” said Bridget Fare, university spokeswoman. “Our mission statement proclaims that Duquesne serves God by serving students. Those words are lived out every day on our campus in very real ways in every part of the university.” Fare declined to elaborate when reached by phone.

USW associate general counsel Daniel Kovalik said the university’s move is legally and ethically offensive.

“If they weren’t too religious to sign the stipulation three weeks ago, how are they too religious now? It is insane. It is dishonest. It has no legal basis, and frankly, I don’t think the (NLRB) is going to let them out of it,” Kovalik said. He said Duquesne negotiates with “three or four unions.”

In May, Duquesne officials reached an agreement with the United Steelworkers calling for an NLRB ballot of part-time or so-called adjunct faculty who seek to form a bargaining unit. The agreement called for the NLRB to supervise a mail ballot of prospective members of the bargaining unit, next Friday through July 9.

More than 120 part-time or adjunct faculty members teach undergraduate courses on semester-to-semester contracts. The university typically limits adjuncts to teaching two courses a semester.

The university’s Memphis lawyers, Arnold E. Perl and Andre B. Mathis, did not return a call for comment. But in their petition to the NLRB, they argued that a 1979 Supreme Court ruling, NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, precludes the federal agency from exercising jurisdiction over a school “whose purpose and function in substantial part are to propagate a religious faith.”

The lawyers argue that Duquesne meets that standard.

Duquesne, founded and owned by the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, said other Catholic universities have filed similar challenges, some of which are under review. The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the Lasallian Association of College and University Presidents, and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities have joined in filing a friend-of-the-court brief with the NLRB in support of these challenges to the NLRB’s jurisdiction over Catholic institutions.

Those filings appear to stand in contrast to Catholic teachings dating back to 1891, when Pope Leo XIII issued a statement supporting the rights of workers to choose to join a union or guild.

As recently as Labor Day, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement reaffirming that stand.

“The Church’s relationship with the labor movement is both supportive and challenging. Our church continues to teach that unions remain an effective instrument to protect the dignity of work and the rights of workers. At their best, unions are important not just for the economic protections and benefits they can provide for their members, but especially for the voice and participation they can offer to workers. They are important not only for what they achieve for their members, but also for the contributions they make to the whole society,” the statement said.

Contacted on Friday, Kathy Saile, director of domestic social development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, declined comment on the colleges’ filings with the NLRB.

A spokesman for the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese declined comment.


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