While Seattle University celebrates its 125th year, its non-tenured faculty is celebrating the 73-63 deciding vote to unionize, which was verified Friday by the National Labor Relations Board.

Seattle U adjuncts voted in summer 2014 whether to form a collective bargaining unit with Service Employees International Union Local 925, but the university appealed the election to the National Labor Relations Board under the argument it should be exempt from the NLRB as a religious institution. This caused the ballots to be impounded and not counted.

The Aug. 23 NLRB decision upheld the right of adjunct and contingent faculty to create a bargaining unit, but agreed with Seattle U that faculty School of Theology and Ministry and the Department of Theology and Religious Studies within the College of Arts & Sciences are exempt as they perform “a specific role in creating and maintaining the school’s religious educational environment.” 

This met the same test applied in the 2014 decision regarding Pacific Lutheran University.

From within the Federal Building on Friday afternoon, Sept. 9, NLRB field examiner Michael Snyder coordinate a counting of the 199 eligible ballots. 

“I thought this was going to be less complicated than PLU,” Snyder said, as he worked with counsel for the faculty and Seattle U. 

Each side had the option to, and did challenge the eligibility of a number of faculty ballots. Because the NLRB sided with Seattle U that faculty teaching religious content could not be included in the bargaining unit, Seattle U challenged 15 of the ballots. 

Since the institution’s appeal to the NLRB, the board has changed its procedures to allow votes to be counted prior to a request for review, but that was not applied retroactively to pending cases.

This meant setting aside challenged ballots, while those accepted by both parties were opened, first a yellow envelope, then a blue one, before the actual ballots were counted.

There was a delay in the final tally, because Seattle U’s private attorney took issue with SEIU’s attorney, Paul Drachler, accepting the university’s challenge of 15 ballots due to the voters being faculty that teach religious content. Drachler said he wouldn’t fight the challenges, but did not have to agree on the record that it was because of religious content, citing the NLRB decision made that clear already. Drachler asked Snyder why there was an issue?

“Is it because the logic is impeccable?” he said.

After a brief outside conference, the university’s attorney agreed, and the final count was declared.  

“It’s about time, it’s all I want to say,” said Theresa Earenfight, a Seattle U history professor with tenure, who simply supported the adjunct and contingent faculty. “It’s long overdue.”

At the table during the tedious counting process was Julie Harms Cannon, a contingent sociology instructor, who told the Capitol Hill Times she initially didn’t support the union effort. Harms Cannon said she didn’t appreciate Seattle University “treating Ph.D. faculty as minimum wage workers,” especially when it’s so expensive to live in Seattle. 

She said some faculty felt harassed for pursuing unionization.

“It’s not legal, but it can still happen,” she said, “if someone’s not happy with what you’re doing.”

The next steps will involve strategizing how the collective bargaining unit will operate. Harms Cannon said roughly 80 percent of the new faculty at Seattle U is adjunct or contingent, meaning employed on a quarterly basis and one-year contract, respectively. 

“We can tell them we have a union now,” she said. 

Drachler said Seattle U can still file objections over how the election was conducted, but can make no further challenges to the vote itself.

“They would have to refuse to bargain with the union,” he said.

Seattle University released this statement following the count:

This has been a challenging issue for our campus community. The two overriding, yet competing rights—the right to organize and the First Amendment right of the university to carry forward its core Jesuit Catholic educational mission on its own terms free from government interference, require thoughtful consideration.

All of us within the campus community seek what is in the long-term best interests of Seattle University and the students we serve. It is the common ground upon which together we can continue to discern the way forward. It is the common ground that nurtures the respect, dialogue and understanding that leads to progress for our university, campus community and mission. 

Today’s counting of the ballots illustrates the divergent viewpoints on unionization. The vote was narrowly in favor of the SEIU. It will be important to consider the results and factor them into the overall context of the two competing rights at play. 

As an educational institution affiliated with the Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus, the university respects the right of working men and women to organize. Several unions represent workers who, like all faculty and staff, are valued members of our campus community. We have a positive relationship with the existing unions on our campus. 

The distinction with faculty is the central role each plays in carrying forward our Jesuit Catholic educational mission The right to carry out our faith-based education on our terms is paramount to who we are and what we are about.

At the same time, Catholic social teaching calls upon us to make sure every individual working at the university, including each individual member of our faculty, is compensated fairly, provided good working conditions and has the opportunity for their voice to be heard. 

Prior to the effort by the non-tenured or non-tenure track faculty (full-time and part-time adjunct faculty) who sought to organize, the university undertook a concerted effort to be at the forefront nationally of supporting adjunct faculty. Initiatives that were part of this effort centered on providing adjunct faculty better compensation, benefits and working conditions as well as leading efforts to make sure adjunct faculty who are part-time at Seattle University have a voice and seat at the table in our shared governance structures. We recognized the challenges within the nation’s higher education sector in regard to adjunct faculty and made it a priority to set Seattle University on a better path several years ago.

The record demonstrates our commitment. It compares more than favorably to those at other institutions who are represented by unions. The vast majority of Seattle University’s faculty is made up of full-time faculty members who receive full benefits, whether they are tenured, tenure track or non-tenure track faculty. While many of our adjuncts fall into the full-time, non-tenure track faculty category, our part-time faculty members are eligible to receive the same comprehensive benefit choices (all medical and other insurance benefits) available to full-time faculty and staff if they teach three consecutive quarters with at least half of a full-time faculty teaching load for an academic year.

Faith-based institutions have a First Amendment right to carry out their core educational mission free from government interference. Courts have repeatedly upheld this right under the National Labor Relations Act. The university remains concerned about the precedent and impact National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) jurisdiction would have on our ability to carry out our core mission free from government intrusion. For example, would the university have to hire faculty hostile to our Jesuit way of teaching and Catholic identity? Would the university be prohibited from removing an adjunct faculty member who becomes openly hostile to and seeks to undermine our core religious identity? Will NLRB jurisdiction compromise and erode the core religious mission that defines and permeates our entire approach to educating the whole person—mind, body and spirit?

As we move forward, Seattle University President Stephen V. Sundborg, S.J., will continue focusing on what is in the best long-term interests of the university, our campus community and our Jesuit Catholic educational mission. When he has more to announce regarding today’s vote he will share it with the campus community. The expected timing of any further announcement is later this month.