The Long, Uphill Battle to Unionize Workers at Religious Institutions

A conversation with Maggie Levantovskaya, a lecturer at a small Jesuit university, about how workers there formed a union, despite the fact that the National Labor Relations Board does not have jurisdiction over religious institutions.

Maximillian Alvarez

SCU Adjunct Faculty and Lecturers Facebook page

Adjunct faculty and lecturers at Santa Clara University, a private Jesuit university in Silicon Valley, have been working to organize a non-tenure track (NTT) faculty union for five years. Along with navigating the particular challenges that come with worker organizing in higher education, theirs is a historic campaign because it is taking place at a religious institution, which the National Labor Relations Board does not exercise jurisdiction over. Nevertheless, after years of organizing and union busting, NTT faculty at Santa Clara are currently voting in their long-awaited union election. In this mini-cast, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez reconnects with former Working People guest Maggie Levantovskaya to talk about why NTT faculty have fought so hard for so long to get to this point and why organizing your workplace — in higher ed and beyond — is so important. Levantovskaya is a lecturer in the English Department and member of AFLOC, the Adjunct Faculty and Lecturer Organizing Committee, at Santa Clara University.

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Pre-Production/Studio: Maximillian Alvarez
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Maggie Levantovskaya: I’m Maggie Levantovskaya. I’m a lecturer in the English Department at Santa Clara University. I’m also one of the union organizers there. I’m on an organizing committee along with a bunch of other adjuncts and lecturers at Santa Clara.

Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.

So hello everyone. We’ve got a special and urgent mini cast for you all today with a familiar face, or a familiar voice, I guess I should say. You all may remember that we had a really incredible full-length episode with our guest today, Maggie Levantovskaya… When was that? Last season, at the beginning, or just before the beginning of season four. So it was technically part of season three. But it was a really awesome conversation where we got to talk more about Maggie’s backstory. We just went in all different directions, talking about her family history, leaving the Soviet Union, growing up in the United States in immigrant communities, working-class communities, growing up to be a literary scholar and an organizer in higher education.

So if you haven’t listened to that episode, if you aren’t following Maggie’s work, I would highly, highly recommend that you fix both of those. We’re going to link to that episode that we did with Maggie here in the show notes for you all. We’re also going to link to some of the great writing that Maggie’s been doing, particularly on this very important and undercovered union drive, as you heard Maggie said, over at Santa Clara University in California.

You guys know that we’ve been doing our best to cover the struggles going on in the academic labor movement, and there are many. Recently, we had striking student and grad student workers on the show from Indiana University and Kenyon college. Before that, we spoke to folks from Columbia University, graduate workers who were on strike. The academic labor movement, for obvious reasons, is very close to my heart, but it’s easy for us to sort of like… Those of us outside of academia now, it tends to get painted over as just like this singular thing. But anyone who knows anything about the landscape of higher education in the United States and beyond knows that it’s a very diverse landscape.

You’ve got private colleges, you’ve got public universities. You’ve got big universities, you’ve got small universities. You’ve got small liberal arts colleges in the middle of nowhere. You’ve got massive state schools in the middle of cities. You have religious institutions like Santa Clara University. Depending on the state, depending on the kind of institution that it is, depending on the kind of mission and charter that the university has, that can all have really big implications for workers at these institutions organizing.

This is what I really wanted to bring Maggie back on the show to walk us through. Because if you guys remember, when we had Maggie on the show last time, we talked about how she got involved in this historic, frankly, unionization effort of adjunct faculty and lecturers at Santa Clara, and how this has basically been a five-year-long struggle to get to where they are right now. And where they are right now is they’re actually voting, finally, in a union election. And, as we have been hearing, they have been facing a lot of union-busting crap from the university. It’s very tough to get to this point, and we know that. And so, we wanted to bring Maggie on to give us an update, walk us through what’s going on, let us know how listeners can show support.

So with all that upfront, Maggie, I wanted to toss it back to you and ask if you could basically pick up from where we left off during that last full-length interview. What’s been going on from then to now besides more years of pandemic and the world going to shit? What’s been going on over there at Santa Clara?

Maggie Levantovskaya: Yeah. So, first of all, thanks for having me. It’s really hard to actually get any press coverage for these kinds of, I guess, very localized labor struggles that don’t have some big, really dramatic thing happen, where workers go on a hunger strike or there’s a strike or some kind of another work stoppage that goes on for weeks and weeks. So I just really appreciate the fact that you’re having me on to even talk about this.

But a lot has happened. So actually the last time I talked to you, my colleagues and I didn’t know if we’d ever get to have a union election. Things were just really not promising at that moment. That’s because we couldn’t file for our election through the NLRB.

There was a short window when religious institutions could unionize through the NLRB, and that was after the Pacific Lutheran decision in 2014. But then as soon as Trump came into office and started appointing agents to various government organizations, we got the memo from the union that it just wasn’t safe to go through the NLRB, that we could potentially set a new precedent that would make it hard for other religious institutions to unionize. We wouldn’t be able to unionize, and it could possibly reverse previous decisions, leading to some unions getting dissolved.

So we were trying to tread carefully. And we basically kept going to the administration of our university and asking them if we could have a vote on unionization outside the NLRB, because any employer can let you have an election. Any employer can voluntarily recognize you through something like a card check. No employer needs to have you go through the NLRB, actually. No employer needs to fight unions.

So we made a great effort to try to work with our administration on an election outside the NLRB. It actually took us years just to get to that point. So we got into these negotiations for the election agreement, but we basically spent a whole academic year trying to hammer something out. The whole time, we were facing a union-busting lawyer, or I guess I should more precisely say a lawyer who works for the firm Littler Mendelson, which is just a firm that’s notorious for union busting.

Maximillian Alvarez: What do they call it, union avoidance specialists?

Maggie Levantovskaya: Yes, union avoidance specialists. Exactly. A euphemism if I ever heard one. Surprise, surprise, we didn’t come to an agreement with them. The administration basically walked away, though they’d probably say that we walked away from these negotiations, again, just for the election agreement.

So, yeah, we weren’t really sure where we were going to go from there, but with Biden’s election and changes to the NLRB, we thought it was time to take the chance. So we filed with the local office this April, and now we’re having our election. The ballots went out last Friday. We have a couple of weeks to vote, and then we find out.

Maximillian Alvarez: Man, I don’t know, like win, lose, or draw, I think it’s really important to just state how impressive and incredible it is that you all got to this point given all of those barriers, and many others that, if I recall correctly, we did talk a little bit about in that full-length episode that we did together that was around two years ago now, almost.

But we talked a bit about the particular struggles of trying to organize people in higher education, especially if you’re trying to organize non-tenure track folks. I won’t rehash all of that. I won’t make you do that. But I guess the SparkNotes version, for folks listening, there’s so much there where you have so many folks like Maggie and myself, both of whom have experienced this, you have that dream of working your way up to a tenured position, and that’s always held over your head as like, don’t rock the boat. Don’t do anything that’s going to jeopardize your standing in the university or another university by trying to organize, because you might get that fabled tenured position.

That also means that in higher education that’s been thoroughly corporatized and neoliberalized for the past 50 years, those tenured positions are fewer and farther between. They’re very, very rare and the people who get them are very, very lucky. Everyone else has been sucked into this contingent” faculty position, where we talked about this with Maggie. A lot of times if you’re a lecturer, maybe you’ll have year appointments, two-year appointments. If you’re an adjunct, sometimes you go semester-by-semester and you don’t know if you’re going to be teaching classes the next semester. You get paid like shit. You don’t have the same benefits. Hopefully all of this is sounding familiar.

So you’re already navigating working and living in that kind of environment. You’re also very busy. You’re grading papers. You’re trying to do your own research. You’re trying to live your own life. And so, it’s very difficult to find time where you can get a bunch of people together to organize and talk about things that are going on in your workplace, and even getting people to see themselves as fellow workers and not as competitors.

I’m speeding through this, but I just wanted to make sure, because it’s important. We have a lot of folks who listen to this show, some of whom may not have gone into the back catalog. And so, I’m always mindful of the fact that if this is the first time someone who’s listening to this show is hearing about organizing going on in the world of higher education, there are some things you need to understand about that world that maybe don’t gel with the cultural idealistic depiction of what is going on in campuses.

But I say all that as a long-winded way of focusing on another obstacle that Maggie and her colleagues have been facing at Santa Clara. Because another reason that it can be very difficult to organize at a place like Santa Clara University is that it’s a very mission-driven place. It’s like, you are there for the students, you are there for the mission that the university exists to carry out. Then when you tie that in with the religiosity of the institution, it’s very easy to see anyone organizing as a troublemaker, someone who’s not serious about that mission.

In fact, in a piece that we’re going to link to in the show notes, Maggie quotes from a campus-wide email that was sent out by the current Santa Clara president that said, and I quote, My belief… ‚” this is the president, university president speaking to the entire campus community. My belief is our community needs more collaboration and understanding, not division. The unionization of a portion of our faculty has the potential to create a deeper us versus them dynamic that detracts, not adds, to our culture and our mission.”

All right. So I’m going to blow a gasket. So before I do, Maggie, I want to toss things over to you and ask, did I… For folks who are listening, did I get all that right about the difficulties of trying to organize at a place like Santa Clara? Could you talk a bit about that administration’s response crystallized in this bullshit email from the president?

Maggie Levantovskaya: Yeah. So there are so many different challenges to organizing, I mean, everywhere. Every organizer knows about them. There are the logistical challenges. Then COVID happens over the past two years. It’s been nearly impossible to have in-person conversations. Or rather, for a full year, it was nearly impossible to do that. We have been able to have in-person conversations and class visits recently.

So all that has played a really major role in building this union effort. But also, yes, the whole time that we’ve been organizing for five years, we’ve been accused of dividing the campus. The thing is that there are divisions absolutely everywhere you spit in higher education, especially when you look at faculty. There’s the big division between the tenure stream faculty and then the non-tenure stream faculty. Then within the non-tenure stream faculty, there are just so many different categories.

I’m not even going to tell you the titles at my institution because they actually sound different at other institutions. Every place has its own divisive, divided, and hierarchical structure. So the experience of somebody who is a senior lecturer at my institution, so non-tenure track, is going to be really different from the experience of somebody who is cobbling together some courses at Santa Clara, some courses at an institution 10 minutes away, and an institution that’s an hour away. We have freeway flyers. We have people who are occasionally sleeping on couches because of their commutes. So division is absolutely everywhere in higher education, and that is precisely why we decided to unionize, because we have a lot in common despite the differences in our working conditions, depending on these classifications. We really just needed to come together and recognize that we, the non-tenure track faculty, are the majority at the institution. Our majority is the only real power that we have.

As individuals, we don’t have power. We’re easily intimidated. Especially those of us who are in the humanities and social sciences, just do not have much leverage power. So it’s hard for us to negotiate better job offers than the ones that we get, and it’s hard for us to move institutions. And a lot of us don’t want to move institutions. We like a lot about our jobs. Some of us are tied to certain geographic locations because of family connections and caretaking responsibilities, all the complexities of life. That doesn’t mean that we should be exploited.

So I think that what’s been really empowering and really beautiful about our union effort is that we’ve come together in ways that we never have in the past. We’ve just learned so much about each other’s lives, experiences on the job, in the classroom, in department meetings, all kinds of things, and it’s really helped us build solidarity.

But, of course, we know that breaking solidarity is really key to our continued oppression and exploitation. When your employer does not want you to come together, does not want you to build a union, to build solidarity, they will make all kinds of accusations of divisiveness. Because it’s just really important for them to push that narrative that this wonderful, beautiful family that we’re all a part of is going to get decimated by the union movement. So it’s just a very, very classic union-busting technique to discredit union organizers and discredit the faculty who want to be part of this union movement.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man. I mean it’s like the more things change. Because it’s like, I swear to God, I’ve been doing this show for five seasons now and if I hear, oh, we’re a family here. We don’t need a union, one more time, I’m going to lose my shit, because the bosses are always going to say that. They love saying that.

And so, I guess I’m more speaking to you, dear listener, and anyone listening out there, is like, okay, we know this is coming. We should be able to expect that they are going to weaponize that bullshit whenever they have the chance to, and I think it’s really instructive how Maggie and her colleagues over there at Santa Clara have been working to navigate this and not let that union-busting work. Because it’s such a bad faith way of putting things. Because I think, as you put so eloquently in your article about this, and as you said yourself, it’s like, look around you. How is this a family that is not already divided?

We’ve talked about two-tier employment systems being the driving force behind a number of strikes and other labor actions that happened over the past year and even beyond. We’ve talked to folks at John Deere who were saying, we’re already on a two-tier system and they want to implement a third tier. Same with Kellogg’s. They were saying you’ve got the top tier, you’ve got the middle tier, you’ve got the temps. So you have multiple tiers of people on the same shop floor doing more or less the same job getting paid radically different amounts. And so everyone starts looking at each other as the potential enemy. Then when workers want to do something about it, the boss says, oh, but we’re a family here. Stop being divisive. Stop dividing us. It’s like, motherfucker, you’re dividing us and we’re trying to fix it.

That’s very much the case in higher education. Again, for folks who haven’t been on a college campus in a while, before COVID even, it’s a very divided and stratified place, where universities used to be more of these contained ecosystems that had different departments. You had groundskeeping departments. You had people doing the custodial work. You had people doing the administrative work. You have clerical work. You have teaching work. All this was part of one big ecosystem.

One by one, the university system started to learn that it could outsource these things. And so you started seeing landscaping get contracted out to non-union contractors. You started seeing the same thing happen with the dining services. You started seeing, as we’ve been talking about here, the explosion of this exploited underclass of teachers in the form of adjuncts and lecturers and even a lot of graduate students whom universities rely on to do a lot of that teaching labor.

So it’s already a very divided place. And I think that that’s one of the really beautiful things about this struggle at Santa Clara, is that the adjuncts and lectures have really been standing together to say, no. In fact, we are, in a way, carrying out the mission better than you are. We embody that mission much better than you do. The fact that you’re trying to stop us should really give everyone who believes in that mission pause.

And so, Maggie, I wanted to ask you on that front, just quickly, if you could just remind folks… Because, again, this is a five-year struggle that preceded COVID. So I guess I wanted to ask, for folks listening, what were the real big impetuses and issues that kept you all in this fight for this long demanding a union? What were the key issues that you all have been organizing around all this time?

Maggie Levantovskaya: Yeah. I do want to just acknowledge that some of us got into it because we already knew that unions were good for workers, either because we were educated about unions, or because we had been in unions as graduate students. I, for example, was at a union at UC San Diego as a grad student. It’s a strong union. Also, I have colleagues, as I already mentioned, who work at other universities. In California, a lot of public community colleges and universities have unions. So people already had that experience. They knew what unions offered, and they wanted that in this workplace.

But, of course, we also had issues that needed to be addressed and were not getting adequately addressed. It’s not going to surprise you that these are some of the same issues that all workers have: job security, pay, respect in the workplace, and voice. The ability to actually play a role in determining our working conditions, in helping to shape the university in a way that actually has power and does not just come from an advisory role. That’s primarily how faculty input happens in higher education. It’s primarily input. We get to advise, we get to beg. But for the most part, we don’t have real power because the most important decisions are made unilaterally by the administration, and they’re just given to us as facts.

This was really clear during COVID, when the administration made so many decisions without consulting faculty about our teaching modalities, about what was going to happen to our salaries and retirement contributions. We saw in a very stark way how much power the administration has over us. So that only fueled the movement. But these issues are so long standing.

So Santa Clara is located in Silicon Valley. It’s in Santa Clara, which is by San Jose, close to Palo Alto. So many tech companies have offices here. It’s one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Last time I checked – And this was years ago now – The average house price was a million dollars. It’s much more now. I just stopped checking, because what’s the point? So the cost of living is just incredibly high. Then you throw inflation into the mix. You throw in the fact that some faculty just do not get raises ever. People who teach per course, people who are on one-year contracts, they don’t get merit raises.

So people just essentially can’t afford, so many people can’t afford to be instructors at Santa Clara University without relying on partners. Not everybody has partners who can contribute that much financially, families in some cases. But for the most part it’s just people taking on other gigs all over the place, teaching at other institutions, consulting, doing some things that have absolutely no connection to academia. That’s pretty much what we’ve been doing to try to survive.

But, yeah, I mean housing is such a major issue for us here. We put so much of our paycheck toward housing, which means that so many of the faculty just have no idea how they’re going to retire. Those of us who are first-generation college students, first-generation immigrants, we have to help our families too. And the institution, pretty much all higher education institutions, but especially these ones that are driven by a mission, claim that they want to uplift all workers. They want to uplift first-generation students. They want to uplift first-generation immigrants. But the proof is in the pudding. So many of us have struggled at this institution for a really long time. So, yeah, we’re asking it to live up to its stated commitments.

Maximillian Alvarez: Man, I think that was, yeah, beautifully put, as always. Again, if you guys haven’t already, you should definitely go listen to the full episode I did with Maggie, because it was one of my favorites. I thought we had a really, really great conversation there.

So since this is a mini cast that we’re trying to get out quickly, I promise that I’ll wrap things up. But I think I’m really glad that we were able to make this happen, because it’s something that I want to do more of here on the show. Folks who listened to that episode got invested in that struggle, that story, and it’s important, as you said, especially when it is so hard for folks to get the media coverage they deserve. It’s important for us to follow up and to make sure that we don’t just get folks invested in a struggle and then move on. We’ve got to see these things through. That’s what we’ve been trying to do with the strike at Warrior Met Coal. It’s what we tried to do last year, and we’ve actually got a follow up coming, on the struggles of farmers in Wisconsin fighting against the factory farming industry. So it’s something we are going to be doing more of.

And so, I say this by way of saying that I want to round out by asking you where things stand right now, how the vibe is for you as voting is going on, and what folks can do to show support right now. But I guess if I could tack on one small thing there, just for folks listening, could you say just a little bit more about the special case given the fact that this is a religious institution, and what that means for trying to unionize at Santa Clara?

Maggie Levantovskaya: Yeah. So there are different obstacles that religious institutions face, and some of them have to do with the laws and with… I mean more specifically with the government agencies we deal with, and even more specifically with the NLRB. Because if the NLRB decides it doesn’t have jurisdiction over religious institutions, it becomes nearly impossible. It’s still not impossible because, again, as I said, no employer needs to obstruct unionization. Any employer can voluntarily recognize a union, but almost no employer does. They’re just these very rare unicorn cases when that happens. So, yeah, the state of the NLRB is just super important.

The other issue, of course, is a cultural issue. With the specific case of religious institutions, sometimes the very thing that makes it rewarding to teach at a place like this, which is this stated commitment to social justice values, can be weaponized against you as a worker. Because you can hear administrators and administration-friendly faculty members essentially say, well, what, are you in this, for the money? I’m not in this for the money. We’re doing this because this is our calling and we’re passionate about teaching. Money is like this dirty thing to even bring into this discussion.

But we as workers want to live lives of dignity and even basic survival. We don’t want to go into debt teaching at this institution. Yeah, we have to pay the bills, and we should not be shamed for wanting to not only pay the bills, but to get a little bit of leisure and joy out of life. We think that, yeah, we deserve a quality life. Obviously none of us went into teaching because we wanted to get rich. It’s the wrong profession for those of us who are dedicated to spending a bunch of hours in the classroom. We’re not asking for that. We’re just asking for a life that has some job security in it.

But oftentimes when we ask for that, we are told that we are entitled, that we are spoiled, that we are not truly committed to our jobs, and that’s just patently false. The fact that we’re sticking around even as we’re being exploited, I think, testifies to that, but workers can only take so much. And so, sooner or later they’re going to resist, and they’re going to resist by coming together and using their strength in numbers to challenge the boss who is not living up to the values that they get to put on all their branding materials, the values that they get to advertise and attract students, donors, and faculty as a result.

Maximillian Alvarez: The great irony is that it’s people like you and your coworkers who are making that mission possible. I mean that’s the position they always put us in, is that… I guess I’m speaking as a former instructor on a college campus when I was at the University of Michigan. It’s like you’re caught. Because you’re like, well, yeah, I’m going to serve out that mission because I love what I do and I care about my students and I want to help them flourish. I want this knowledge to be part of their lives and yada, yada, yada. But I still think that you’re treating me like shit and exploiting me.

To add insult to injury, you were using the product that I and my coworkers are providing to market the university to funders and students and potential hires. And yet, you’re doing everything you can to get in the way of us organizing and getting the work-life balance, job security, and basic dignity that every worker deserves. Anyway, I won’t go on for more.

Maggie Levantovskaya: Yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, go for it.

Maggie Levantovskaya: Oh, can I add something else?

Maximillian Alvarez: Please.

Maggie Levantovskaya: Is that okay? The other thing I wanted to say is, in response to your question of where we are, we’re actually in a great place in many ways because our election is happening, and that is amazing. It’s just amazing that we get this opportunity to make this decision democratically through the NLRB. But our administration is fighting us very aggressively at this moment.

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Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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