Can Private College's Faculty Unionize? Nlrb Seeks Briefs in Point Park's Long Dispute with Teachers

By Schwarz, Marcus | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), August 26, 2012 | Go to article overview

Can Private College's Faculty Unionize? Nlrb Seeks Briefs in Point Park's Long Dispute with Teachers


Schwarz, Marcus, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Are Point Park University professors labor or management?

That question is at the heart of a long-running dispute between the school and its faculty that could change the status of higher education employees nationwide.

In recent months, big-name higher education groups have entered the debate -- arguing both for and against a union that officials at the Downtown university have resisted since faculty tried to organize in 2004.

Advocacy groups entered the fray after the National Labor Relations Board asked for amicus briefs on whether private university faculty are eligible to join unions.

The request could mean the board is considering developing new guidelines on how to distinguish whether faculty are managers or employees. Such guidelines could affect private university faculty across the country.

A gray legal precedent

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that faculty members at Yeshiva University were managers not entitled to union representation because they shared governance over the university with administrators.

Since then, for the NLRB to find that a faculty is eligible to organize, the board must establish differences between the administrative power of the university faculty in question and that of the Yeshiva faculty, according to Stanford labor law professor William Gould IV, the NLRB chairman from 1994 to 1998.

Of the board's request for briefs in the Point Park case, he said, "They might be looking for a case that would permit them to make findings that are different from the facts of Yeshiva."

The Yeshiva case is not a blanket precedent against faculty unions but instead requires a case-by-case review of the powers of faculty, said Ellen Dannin, a labor law professor at Penn State University.

A long struggle

The conflict between Point Park University and its faculty is far from new. Faculty voted 49-14 in 2004 to join the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh. (Post-Gazette reporters are also members of this union.)

Point Park's attempt to introduce a new faculty handbook without faculty input sparked professors to organize, said history professor Edward Meena, who is president of Point Park's faculty assembly and active in the push for a union.

The old faculty handbook was frozen when the NLRB took up the case, but the turnover of administrators has made working without a collective bargaining agreement difficult, Mr. Meena said.

The old handbook, for example, was written before Point Park switched from having one provost to four deans, Mr. Meena said. It includes nothing about the powers of the new deans, who control the university's four schools, Mr. Meena said. The administrative change was part of Point Park's transition in 2004 from a college to a university.

In his role as faculty assembly president, Mr. Meena said he has often been involved in disputes between deans and faculty.

"The one thing I would always hear [from deans] was, well, it's not in the handbook so I should be allowed to do this," he said. "It's all in the interpretation in the language of the old handbook."

The NLRB ordered the university to bargain with the union, but Point Park sued the labor board--setting up a 2006 face-off in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

That case ended with the court sending the conflict back to the NLRB, demanding that it specify why Point Park faculty is allowed to organize under the National Labor Relations Act, which describes which types of employees can form unions.

"Every academic institution is different, and in determining whether a particular institution's faculty are 'managerial employees' excluded from the act or 'professional employees' included in the act, the board must perform an exacting analysis of the particular institution and faculty," the D.C. Circuit Court decision stated.

The regional NLRB director issued a new decision in compliance with the court, but in 2007 Point Park asked the board to review it.

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