Seattle U’s union avoidance contrary to Catholic teachings


(May 2, 2014) — The Catholic Church has a long and well-documented tradition of supporting the rights of workers to organize unions and also of opposing government efforts to restrict workers’ access to unions. The U.S. Conference of Bishops has written, “Workers, owners, employers, and unions should work together to create decent jobs, build a more just economy, and advance the common good” and “no one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself.”

Apparently, Seattle University’s Father Steve Sundborg didn’t get that memo.

As the President of the Roman Catholic university, Father Sundborg distributed a video message this week urging his adjunct teachers, also known as contingent faculty, to vote against forming a union with Service Employees International Union Local 925 because it would interfere with the school’s “mission.” This after his university unsuccessfully tried to get the U.S. government to block their employees’ access to a union by claiming that it would threaten the university’s religious freedom.

So much for human dignity.

Last month, the National Labor Relations Board rejected the university’s argument, just as it has at Pacific Lutheran University and other religious private colleges, and ruled that adjunct faculty have the right to choose whether they want to unionize. The terms of that union election have now been set. Ballots will be mailed to Seattle University adjuncts on May 14 and must be returned to the NLRB by June 2.

“I hope you’ll vote against the unionization,” Sundborg says in a video entitled “A Message from Father Steve.”

I think it would be nearly impossible to work directly with you, our faculty, if we had to work through the Service Employees International Union rather than directly with you. SEIU simply can’t be about our ‘mission,’ (it) can’t know it and can’t promote it… Also I think that the union would seriously damage the sense of collaboration and community that we have. We try to develop a community of scholars and teachers, and a union would break that collaboration and that community.

EDITOR’S NOTE — Seattle University has changed the privacy settings on Father Sundborg’s video message, which was posted here, so it is no longer available.


Describing unions as outside agitators that interfere with the team/mission/sense of community — as opposed to the employees themselves joining together to negotiate for better wages and working conditions — is a standard union-busting tactic among employers. It’s called “third-partying the union,” as discussed in a recent column in The Stand by Sarah Laslett, Director of the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center.

So how does Father Sundberg reconcile his efforts to block access to a union with pro-union Catholic teachings?

“Catholic social teaching does not say in every instance and every situation that it is best to have a union,” he says in the video. “I know in our kind of institution and in our kind of community and our mission, it’s not the better thing for us to do.”

National awareness has risen about the plight of part-time non-tenure faculty thanks to stories like Margaret Mary Vojtko’s. She was fired last year after 25 years as an adjunct French professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and died shortly thereafter from cancer in abject poverty without any health care or retirement benefits. After Duquesne’s adjunct faculty overwhelmingly voted to form a union with the United Steelworkers, like Seattle University, administrators fought unionization by claiming it would interfere with its Catholic “mission.” Vojtko was a devout Catholic.

From left, Seattle University adjuncts Nancy Burkhalter (Languages and Culture Bridge), Jerome Veith (Philosophy), Michael Ng (History), and Larry Cushnie (Political Science) at the Feb. 20 NLRB filing.

On Feb. 20, adjunct faculty at Seattle University joined what has become a national movement — via SEIU, AFT, USW and other unions — to gain a voice at work and improve the quality of higher education by filing an NLRB petition to form a union. When Father Sundberg and Seattle University tried to claim a religious exemption and block the union vote, dozens of adjunct faculty members signed an open letter expressing “profound” disappointment:

Contingent and adjunct professors, who make up over 50% of SU’s faculty, have been working for years to gain a greater voice and more fairness within our institution. The current union movement is an outgrowth of those long-standing conversations…

We have been impressed by the gains made by contingent faculty at other private universities through unionization, including American University, George Washington University, Tufts University and Georgetown University (another Jesuit institution like us). Forming a union with SEIU has resulted in a number of benefits for contingent faculty:  pay increases, improved job security, better processes for teaching assignments, fair and transparent evaluations, access to more benefits, and a platform to allow their voices to be heard.

Learn more about their reasons for supporting unionization at ActogetherWA.org.

In the meantime, Father Sundborg will likely continue his efforts to portray the possible formation of a union as an unwelcome intervention by a third-party interloper instead of his employees exercising their freedom of association.

“I sincerely ask you to vote ‘no’ on the unionization of you by the SEIU,” Sundborg says. He later adds, “I don’t see you as employees, I see you as faculty. And I don’t think you want to be employees of the university rather than faculty of the university.”

Now he’s starting to sound like a football coach at Northwestern.

David Groves is Editor of The Stand.

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