Which Side Are They on? When a Catholic College Resists a Union

Article excerpt

Manhattan College, founded by the De La Salle Christian Brothers in 1853, is proud of its Catholic tradition. The chairman of its board of trustees, corporate executive Thomas D. O'Malley, has noted that it has a crucifix in every classroom, three churches, daily Mass, and much religious art gracing its campus in the River-dale section of the Bronx. Two-thirds of the thirty-five hundred students are Catholic, he reports, and the graduation Mass is standing-room only. Every student must take a Catholic-studies course.

But of late the college administration is getting unwanted instruction from one of its religious-studies professors, Joseph Fahey, who says Manhattan College has violated Catholic social teaching by trying to deny its adjunct faculty the right to join a union. Fahey, who is chairman of the 250-memher advocacy group Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, has become a central figure in a union drive begun last October to organize the Manhattan College adjuncts.

As he told college President Brennan O'Donnell, authoritative Catholic teaching states clearly that workers have a right to organize. He elaborated on this when serving as chief witness for the New York State United Teachers union (NYSUT) in its dispute with the college before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). "Labor unions are an indispensable element of social life in Catholic teaching," he testified, citing statements of the magisterium compiled in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. "No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself."

Even as many Catholic institutions move to deepen their Catholic identity, they sidestep what the Catholic Scholars call "the right to free association that is rooted in the natural moral law and that serves as the cornerstone of Catholic social teaching on workers' rights." Nor do they seem worried that the scholars' organization has called union-busting a mortal sin.

At a time when workers' ability to organize is under renewed assault, church teachings on the rights of workers and the duties of unions toward the common good loom larger. But if the church doesn't practice what it preaches, it would be hard to expect anyone to take these often-overlooked teachings seriously.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has in fact affirmed that these teachings apply to Catholic institutions, primarily in two documents that aimed to improve the sometimes-bitter labor-management relations in Catholic hospitals. The first, "A Fair and Just Workplace: Principles and Practices for Catholic Health Care," said in 1999 that hospital employees had the right under Catholic teaching to unionize. Management and labor officials signed on to that.

With tensions persisting, the bishops negotiated another agreement in 2009 with the Catholic Hospital Association, the AFL-CIO, and the Service Employees International Union. It reaffirmed the right of workers to organize and recommended a process for local agreements to be reached between labor and management.

Manhattan College is hardly the only Catholic institution that has tried to block unionizing efforts. But I have not seen another case that addressed the morality of that action so directly--with Fahey, leader of the Catholic Scholars group and director of the college's labor-studies program, framing the issue for college officials in terms of obedience to Catholic teaching.

O'Donnell, the Manhattan College president, said he "struggled and wrestled" with the teachings involved before deciding to challenge the move to unionize the part-time adjunct faculty. "What we're talking about is a massive body of thinking and interpretation that has all sorts of complexities," he said. "It's a tradition that recognizes that one-size-fits-all approaches are not always the best way to make decisions." The Catholic tradition recognizes the struggle between "competing goods," he said, adding, "prudential judgment is involved. …