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NLRB Orders Review of Faculty-Unionization Case at Point Park U.

The National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday ordered a regional official to reconsider a case focused on whether faculty members at a private college in Pittsburgh have too much say in managing their institution to be allowed to unionize.

The case, involving Point Park University, is the sixth that the federal agency has ordered regional officials to reconsider in light of its December ruling in a case involving Pacific Lutheran University. In contrast to the other five cases, however, the Point Park dispute does not involve a religious college arguing that its First Amendment religious freedom would be infringed by NLRB oversight stemming from unionization. Instead, it involves a secular private college and an issue that arose in only some of the religious-college cases: whether the faculty members who seek to unionize should be considered managers and therefore precluded from doing so.

Full-time faculty members with managerial duties at private colleges were barred from forming unions under the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1980 decision National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University (444 U.S. 672). Until its recent decision in the Pacific Lutheran case, the NLRB generally let private colleges themselves define whether their faculty members’ jobs were managerial, a deference that gave such institutions substantial power to declare their professors ineligible for union membership and thereby nip organizing efforts in the bud.

In rendering the Pacific Lutheran ruling, involving contingent faculty members, the board did not take at face value the university’s assertions that the instructors at issue had managerial responsibilities. Instead it conducted a detailed analysis of what roles the contingent faculty members played and how much power they actually had, concluding that the instructors had too little say in the institution’s affairs to be precluded from unionizing under Yeshiva.

In the Point Park case, which involves full-time faculty members, union organizers and their allies have similarly argued that the influence of faculty members at many private colleges has been so badly eroded that it no longer makes sense to see them as having much say over their institutions’ affairs. Point Park and associations representing college administrations have argued that faculty members’ role in the governance of such institutions remains strong. The NLRB’s Pacific Lutheran decision opened the door for labor-board officials to investigate exactly what roles faculty members who wish to unionize play in the management of their institutions.

Along with asking regional labor-board officials to revisit the Pacific Lutheran and Point Park cases, the NLRB has directed that they apply its reasoning in the recent Pacific Lutheran decision to disputes involving the attempted unionization of adjunct faculty members at four Roman Catholic colleges: Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh; Manhattan College, in Riverdale, N.Y.; Saint Xavier University, in Chicago; and Seattle University.

In addition to altering how it decides whether faculty members are managerial, the Pacific Lutheran decision established a new test for determining whether faculty members perform a religious function. Instead of trying to determine exactly what religious role faculty members serve—a level of federal scrutiny that religious colleges had opposed in courts as too intrusive—the board said it would now consider whether colleges that hold themselves out as religious also explicitly hold their faculty members out as doing religious work.

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