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Union busting has become big business in America. It’s so common that the run-of-the-mill variety hardly raises an eyebrow. Employers regularly hire anti-union consultants and hold captive audience meetings laced with subtle and not-so-subtle threats of disciplinary action or firings.
But every once in a while, employers try a novel union-busting tactic. In Pittsburgh, in a case that some have suspected is destined for the Supreme Court, Duquesne University has pushed the boundaries of employer intimidation.
On April 29, adjunct professors Clint Benjamin and Adam Davis testified under oath at a hearing at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The topic was Duquesne University’s unwillingness to recognize the union that their colleagues overwhelmingly voted for three years ago. After the hearing, the regional director of the NLRB held that Duquesne had to negotiate with the union the adjuncts voted to represent them, United Steelworkers (USW). (Full disclosure: I teach a course at Duquesne Law School, which is a part of Duquesne University, but was not part of this bargaining unit.)
As expected, Duquesne appealed the decision, prolonging the NLRB process and delaying bargaining. However, deep in Duquesne’s appeal — footnote 16 on page 42, to be exact — Duquesne did something radical: It used the brief as a means to openly union-bust by sending out a clear message that anyone who opposes the University in this organizing campaign risks losing their jobs.
The brief read, “Today, Duquesne reserves the right not to rehire both professors and replace them with professors willing and/or better able to incorporate Duquesne’s Catholic, Spiritan mission into their courses.”
As the bottom rung of the faculty, adjuncts have virtually no job protections, so Duquesne would be free to terminate any adjunct for any legitimate reason. It appears, then, that this threat of firing was meant to serve a different purpose than merely preserving some abstract right to fire them: It seems clear the comment was meant to threaten them and all other adjuncts that dare to stand against Duquesne in its anti-union efforts.
Such comments, made informally by a supervisor or anti-union consultant, are fairly common in the workplace during a union drive, though they may be illegal. The fact that Duquesne would feel brazen enough to submit them in a legal document to the NLRB is a slap in the face to the workers and a dare to the federal agency tasked with protecting labor rights.
When asked how he read the Duquesne’s footnote, Benjamin responded, “The threat was pretty bone-chilling.”
I reached out to Duquesne’s attorneys to inquire as to what legitimate explanation they could have had for the threatening footnote, and they did not respond to the request for comment.
There’s a reason the brief specifically cited the university’s religious mission. The NLRB hearing was to determine whether Duquesne, as an institution affiliated with the Catholic Church, was under NLRB jurisdiction. After initially agreeing to the union election in 2012, Duquesne changed course and argued that the NLRB had no jurisdiction over the university. The case has been going up and down the NLRB for three years now, raising significant issues about the Board’s jurisdiction.
The specific question at the hearing was whether the university “holds out the petitioned-for faculty as performing a specific role in creating or maintaining the university’s religious educational environment.” Benjamin and Davis’s testimony was critical. Benjamin testified that he teaches two core English composition courses at Duquesne, and Davis testified that he teaches a history of science course in the History Department. Both testified that they have never been asked about their faith, never been told how to promote Duquesne’s religious mission and never been disciplined for failing to live up to Catholic teachings. Benjamin, who also teaches a composition course at a community college, testified that the way he teaches his course at both institutions is identical.
Benjamin’s and Davis’s testimony that as adjuncts they had no role in Duquesne’s religious mission, and that they were never expected to help promote that mission, was damning to Duquesne’s case at the NLRB. Their testimony revealed that they answered advertisements for the adjunct positions, were hired without any questions about religion, and have never been given any religious directions. Benjamin explained that aside from the various crucifixes adorning the campus, religion is not a concern in his class.
Therefore, they were taken aback by Duquesne’s assertion in the brief professors must “incorporate Duquesne’s Catholic, Spiritan mission into their courses.”
In an interview with In These Times, Benjamin said that he is not even sure how he would incorporate religion into a basic composition course. “I guess we’d involve more reading of scripture?” he says. “The mission itself is to serve God by serving students. It’s pretty open-ended as to what that means.”
University of Wyoming College of Law Professor Michael Duff explained that Duquesne would have trouble arguing that it was simply reaffirming its rights to fire adjuncts who did not adhere to its religious mission. “The problem with the footnote, however, is its superfluity: there was simply no reason to make the declaration,” Duff explained, “and in the context of the footnote you could make a pretty strong argument that it was targeted specifically to the employee witnesses.” The footnote’s only purpose, in other words, was to intimidate the two professors and any other professors who may consider taking a stand in the future.
Duff, who worked at the Board for nine years, further explained that such statements in a legal filing are extremely rare.
“Typically this would occur before an employer had retained a lawyer and had gone off kind of “half-cocked” in anger,” Duff explained. “In my experience, it would be very unusual for a sophisticated law firm to make statements in a formal legal document that even arguably violated the law.”
Duquesne’s attorney, Memphis-based Arnold Perl, is indeed sophisticated in his labor practice. He has been involved in a variety of “union avoidance” (often code for union busting) for decades, and until shortly after he became Duquesne’s counsel in May 2012, he bragged in his bio that he had “extensive experience counseling organizations on remaining union free.” (In late 2012, he changed his bio to read that he has “extensive experience counseling organizations on positive employee relations.”)
Dan Kovalik, the USW attorney who has been representing the Duquesne adjuncts, explained that the purpose of the footnote was immediately apparent.
“It really is tantamount to them threatening to fire them for testifying,” he says. “Because as we showed at the hearing, adjuncts aren’t told they have to incorporate the mission in their teaching, and these guys certainly weren’t told to do that. And now because they testified truthfully about that, they’re being threatened to be fired.”
Reflecting on the irony of including this threat in a brief that is filled with so much religious doctrine and sanctimony, Kovalik said, “They’ve carved out the moral low ground in the name of carving out the moral high ground.”
Duquesne’s case is filled with such ironies. It is arguing that Catholic doctrine — which has traditionally been supportive of labor rights — provides the university an excuse not to recognize the employees’ duly elected union. And, in case that argument stalls, it has decided to use, as a vehicle for union busting, a legal filing to the federal agency tasked with protecting employees’ labor rights.
The techniques that everyone has come to expect in anti-union campaigns did not appear all at once, fully formed. Rather, some employer, management-side attorney, or anti-union consultant decided to test the waters with a new approach If the NLRB does nothing in response to Duquesne’s use of the Board’s proceedings to intimidate workers, then the message to other employers will be clear — and it won’t be long until this approach becomes the norm.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.