Catholic University Claims It Does Not Have To Allow Unions Because Religious Freedom

A widely-shared op-ed written by a union attorney tells the tragic story of Margaret Mary Vojtko, who died this month at the age of 83. According to the op-ed, Vojtko was undergoing radiation therapy for cancer at the time of her death, and she’d recently lost her job at Duquesne University, a Catholic-identified school where she worked for 25 years as an adjunct French professor. In that role, the op-ed claims, she received no benefits and never earned more than $25,000 a year. In her final year at Duquesne, she allegedly taught just one class and earned only $10,000.

Duquesne disputes at least some of these facts. It claims that Vojtko “was invited to live with us in the formation community at Laval House on campus,” although it has not specifically denied paying Vojtko such a meager wage or refusing to provide her with benefits. Moreover, the tale of Vojtko’s death is a subplot in a much larger battle of whether the university’s remaining adjunct professors can bargain fairly for an adequate wage. As the op-ed explains, “[w]hile adjuncts at Duquesne overwhelmingly voted to join the United Steelworkers union a year ago, Duquesne has fought unionization, claiming that it should have a religious exemption.”

According to legal documents filed with the National Labor Relations Board, Duquesne originally acquiesced in its employees’ desire to hold a union election, but it later went back on this agreement, citing a 1979 Supreme Court decision exempting “church-operated schools” from parts of federal labor law. The breadth of that decision is now at issue before the board. The university cites one court decision allowing a school like Duquesne to resist unionization so long as it “’holds itself out to students, faculty and community’ as providing a religious educational environment.” The union cites other court decisions establishing that only faculty members with an “obligation . . . to imbue and indoctrinate the student body with tenets of a religious faith” are unable to unionize under the 1979 decision.


Yet, regardless of how the law views this dispute, Duquesne suggestion that its Catholic affiliation entitles it to ignore the right of workers to organize would probably come as a tremendous shock to the Catholic Church itself. Catholic canon law calls upon employers to “observe meticulously also the civil laws concerning labor and social policy, according to the principles handed on by the Church” and to “pay a just and decent wage to employees so that they are able to provide fittingly for their own needs and those of their dependents.” Similarly, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops proclaimed last year that “[o]ur Church has long taught that unions are ‘an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies’ . . . and are examples of the traditional Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity in action.”

Additionally, Duquesne’s effort to seek a religious objection to union law is troubling in light of recent efforts by conservative religious employers to blur the lines between religious non-profits and businesses owned or operated by people with religious objections to the law. Indeed, one conservative court recently opened the door, in a case involving a for-profit corporation’s challenge to federal rules promoting access to birth control, to “a large publicly traded corporation tr[ying] to assert religious rights.” Admittedly, there are a number of legal hurdles religious conservatives would have to clear before they could immunize their for-profit companies from unionization, but the challenges to the birth control rules also appeared very unlikely to prevail just a few years ago, and now they likely have at least even odds in the Supreme Court. If nothing else, Duquesne’s union-busting effort highlights the dangers of a too-expansive regime protecting religious entities. One price of a too-expansive regime is more workers who are unable to obtain a decent wage.