St. Leo U. moves forward with disbanding union amid faculty, Catholic pushback

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Valerie Wright, president of the United Faculty of Florida-St. Leo Chapter speaks on zoom about efforts to save the University's faculty union.

Pasco County’s Catholic St. Leo University is moving full-speed ahead with plans to replace its 44-year-old faculty union and senate with a new “shared governance system.”

Faculty members, state unions and even Catholic organizations are asking the school to pull back before it’s too late.

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Valerie Wright has been president of the United Faculty of Florida-Saint Leo Chapter for three years. She might also be the organization’s last. Wright said UFF is giving the Board of Trustees time to reverse its decision, but isn’t hopeful.

“When this does go to court, which we think it will,” Wright said. “Unless we can get the Board of Trustees to change their mind, we do feel we will be very successful.”

The Catholic social doctrine

St. Leo announced in October its board voted to disband the school’s faculty union and senate after The National Labor Relations Board reversed Obama-era precedence giving it oversight of faculty at religious colleges and universities. Some saw it as a win for freedom of religious institutions from government rule.  But labor advocates consider it overreach, giving institutions the freedom to union bust with no consequence.

Joseph Fahey, of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, said St. Leo is the only school he’s seen take such bold step.

“The universities come to realize the benefits of having a union. They also come to realize that it’s a staple of Catholic thought to have one,” Fahey said. “So we think on a moral level they’ll be reluctant to take this kind of measure.”

St. Leo issued a statement in October citing the need to be “innovative and flexible” especially during the COVID-19 era. It said forming a new shared governance model would allow that. And said it was “keeping with the university’s Catholic Benedictine identity.”

Fahey said that’s hogwash. But he’s willing to help.

“You just tore up your own statement of Catholic identity,” he said. “We stand ready to meet with the board. And in the spirit of reconciliation talk with you about what Catholic social teaching really is. We realize many of you may not know what it really is.”

The Catholic Church has a history of supporting unionization. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII famously wrote about supporting unions in his Rerum Novarum text.  Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 said it was more important than ever for that text to be recognized in the church’s social doctrine.

Shared governance…again?

The school cited the NLRB ruling as backing for its decision. But Jack McTague, a retired St. Leo professor and original union member, said that doesn’t mean it was necessary.

“Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do something,” McTague said.

UFSLU President Wright said the school already had a shared governance model. The union and senate, she said, worked closely with administration and the Board of Trustees to acquiesce requests when it came to contracts, new degree programs and even adapting to COVID-19.

“We’ve had a shared governance here,” she said. “I can unequivocally state the faculty union has always been nimble and flexible with the administration when asked.”

McTague helped start the union in 1976. He said the decision is about control.

“They couldn’t just cut salaries or change workloads or working conditions of the faculty without consulting the union,” he said. “And college Presidents typically don’t like that.”

Isolation and apprehension

Wright said she’s now in fear of her job security and that of the faculty she represented as union president. Even tenured professors worry. There’s no recourse for the University if they decide to fire tenured professors or retaliate.

“Never have the faculty felt so isolated and apprehensive about the future,” Wright said.

The University is working with a transition team to create its shared governance model. It told WMNF it’s “committed to moving forward together with our faculty to create an institution that not only remains true to our Catholic roots while strengthening our Catholic identity but is ready to adapt to today’s quickly changing higher education environment.”

An online petition to reinstate St. Leo’s union has more than 1,200 signees and more than a dozen other higher education institutes have asked the school to acknowledge the union.

 

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