The entrance arch at Chicago’s oldest college Credit: Courtesy Saint Xavier University

COVID-19 has already provided the rationale for some previously unimaginable social changes, but here’s a new one: union busting.

On May 28, the administration at Saint Xavier University announced that it will no longer recognize its longtime faculty union. In a letter to faculty and staff, president Laurie M. Joyner and board chair Patricia A. Morris put it this way:

“As we emerge from the initial disruption of COVID-19 on our campus community, we must prepare for the economic and structural impact of the pandemic on higher education as well as longtime trends for universities .  . . . To this end, the Board of Trustees has unanimously decided that Saint Xavier University will no longer recognize the Faculty Affairs Committee as a collective bargaining unit effective immediately.”

Presto: done. A simple, unilateral declaration—like a wand wave by the fairy godmother of making unions vanish—and the Faculty Affairs Committee (FAC), certified by the National Labor Relations Board in 1979, is gone.

In a statement released by the 140-member union, FAC chair Angelo Bonadonna says the faculty are facing “disenfranchisement” and “the complete degradation of our mission and values.”

How is that possible? The explanation has more to do with the separation of church and state than with COVID.  

Saint Xavier is Chicago’s oldest college. Its roots go back to 1846, when the Sisters of Mercy established a “Female Academy” at what is now Michigan and Madison Street. By the mid-1950s, SXU was in its current location at 103rd Street and Central Park; it went coed in 1969, and—after recovering from financial difficulties a few years ago—serves about 3,000 undergrads and more than 600 graduate students.

The last faculty contract expired a year ago; negotiations have been in process for two years. According to the administration, they “have proven ineffective and unproductive, depleting critical faculty and institutional resources.” They’re not the first employer to find that dealing with unions can be a drag. But, like other institutions with religious affiliations, SXU has some special options. They were clarified by a recent court decision in a lawsuit involving another Catholic school, Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.       

Duquesne has been notorious since a veteran adjunct professor there, reportedly too broke to fix the furnace in her house, collapsed on the street and died after being let go from a job that never paid her more than $25,000 annually and included neither retirement nor health-care benefits. She became an instant poster person for the widespread abuse of adjuncts by colleges and universities of all kinds, religious or not.

That was 2013, but the legal battle that Duquesne was waging at the time to keep its miserably paid adjuncts from unionizing is still making its way through the federal courts. In January, an appeals court ruled that the National Labor Relations Act (and the right to form unions) does not apply to any faculty at nonprofit schools operated by religious groups. An exception the National Labor Relations Board had tried to make for colleges that have a religious affiliation but are, in practice, relatively secular (and for nontheological faculty), was negated.

There could be further litigation on the Duquesne decision, but in the meantime, the status of faculty unions at schools with religious affiliations is this: they exist at the mercy of the school’s administration. And, for full-time tenure-track faculty at private colleges like SXU, this appears to be doubly true: they’ve been excluded from unionization rights under the National Labor Relations Act since 1980, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided they are management.   

Theology professor and FAC vice chair Michael O’Keeffe says the union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and is expecting clarification on its status soon. He says the major sticking point in negotiations has been a union demand for binding arbitration, which they haven’t had and the university doesn’t want. Although SXU faculty salaries are relatively low, O’Keeffe insists that money is not the issue. “It’s really about the role of the union,” he says. “It’s about accountability and power.”   

The administration says it will “continue to honor the principles of academic freedom and shared governance” by working with the faculty senate, as if that would be an equivalent arrangement. 

And, although money may not be the union’s issue, the university is offering financial consolation: lump-sum checks have been issued to faculty to make up in part for lagging salaries, and there’s a promise of salary increases for the 2020–2021 academic year if the COVID-related drop in fall term revenue isn’t too great.

So are the professors rising up in unison to object? Not exactly: senate president Karen Wood responded to an interview request with this emailed comment: “The unanimous decision of the Board of Trustees, who have ultimate responsibility for all acts of the University, provides for no longer recognizing the faculty affairs committee. As Faculty Senate President, my job is to support the continued functioning of our University for the benefit of students, faculty and staff. I intend to do my best to ensure that all faculty have voice and input into the future direction of this University by engaging in any and all activity to further both the University mission and faculty concerns.”

The union is asking the NLRB for “immediate injunctive relief.”  v