Following end of federal oversight, a Catholic University in Florida said it will no longer recognize faculty union, leaving teachers vulnerable

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Faculty at Saint Leo University in Pasco County are worried about job security and other protections after a surprise decision from the school’s board of trustees stripped them of union protection.

The university’s announcement came after the National Labor Relations Board ended oversight of faith-based universities.

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The news came as a shock to Valerie Wright, president of the United Faculty of Saint Leo University.

“We’re showing up at work, we’re there in the middle of a pandemic. Then, pow!” Wright said. “On a Friday afternoon all of our rights have gone away. We have no rights no grievance procedures. We have no voice.”

Shared governance

It’s been more than two weeks since the University announced in an Oct. 23rd email that the board voted not to recognize the union and would be going with w new form of shared governance.

The new governance structure is still yet to be announced.

The email stated the board made a decision to create a new shared governance model “keeping with the university’s Catholic Benedictine identity.”

But Karen Morian, president of United Faculty of Florida, said that seems counterintuitive given the decision was made without consulting anyone in the University’s 194-person instructional staff.

“I really can’t strongly stress enough that shared governance means involving faculty at all major decisions,” Morian said. “The fact that faculty were not even made aware that this was under consideration, let alone be able to speak to the trustees about this issue before the vote was taken, seems the opposite of shared governance.”

Rerum Novarum

She also said it was unnecessary given the Catholic church’s rich and long-lasting history of supporting labor organizations. Pope Leo XIII wrote about supporting organizational associations for workers in Rerum Novarum, Latin for Revolutionary Change, in 1891. And Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 said it was more important than ever for the Rerum Novarum to be recognized in the church’s social doctrine.

“The bottom line is this is something that was undertaken voluntarily without necessity without any sort of religious underpinnings,” Morian said. “We are as baffled as the rest of the community is as to why these trustees felt they should take advantage of this option at this time.”

In June The National Labor Relations Board reversed Obama-era precedence giving it oversight of faculty at religious colleges and universities. The decision came after a married couple who lost their jobs at Bethany College, a Lutheran school in Kansas, complained to the NLRB. The NLRB’s board sided with the school in what was seen as a First Amendment victory allowing religious institutions freedom from government rule. But labor advocates consider it overreach, giving institutions the freedom to union bust with no consequence.

St. Leo cited the NLRB’s ruling in its decision to not recognize the faculty union. But Morian pointed out the decision wasn’t necessary. She said Saint Leo is the only institution in Florida she knows of that has used the ruling to ignore a union’s bargaining power.

“This was definitely a choice that they made. Not something that was forced upon them. Not something that is doctrinally driven,” she said. “I don’t yet know who was behind it or what the ultimate goal other than union-busting is. Because it doesn’t seem to have any other purpose except that.”

Innovation and flexibility

St. Leo board chair D. Dewey Mitchell in a news release said COVID-19 has shown the school needs to be “innovative and flexible.” He said “By creating a new shared governance structure, faculty members can work closely with the administration to quickly adapt and meet the needs of our students.”

But Wright said the union she leads at the school, and the school’s senate already worked closely with the administration. It didn’t stand in the way of flexibility or innovation.

“We’ve never held up anything, so that we could be viable,” she said. “If the administration comes to us and says, ‘we need a program in cybersecurity, let’s get it done.’ Then we work with them.”

A real fear

Wright said she understands St. Leo might be facing economic hardships during COVID-19 just like many other institutions at all levels of education. She believes in the school and wants it and its students to be successful. She’s been on staff there for nearly 20 years and is a full, tenured professors.

But now faculty’s health insurance is at risk during a growing pandemic, as are their jobs in general. Without a union, administration could furlough or let go faculty without discussing a plan and without notice. It could also retaliate against faculty for speaking out with no system for accountability.

“Faculty have a real fear, whether their tenured or not that they could lose their job. That’s just the reality of it,” Wright said. “It’s especially hurtful in the middle of a pandemic when we’re isolated and vulnerable and its already stressful as it is. Then this was dropped like a bomb and just gave us more chaos.”

Morian said the UFF is working with St. Leo’s union to get the Board of Trustees to reverse it’s decision. They’ll take the fight to the courts if necessary.

In an email to WMNF, a St. Leo representative said the University is “thrilled to join forces with our faculty and create a shared governance model that helps us become more innovative.”

They declined to comment further.

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