NLRB takes on Catholic college's religious freedom

A fight over graduate student unionization is looming at Boston College (BC).

As partisan control over the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has alternated with presidential administrations, it has shifted its stance on whether graduate students who serve as research or teaching assistants are students or employees of their institution. Last year, the NLRB ruled that Columbia University graduate teaching and research assistants constituted employees of their university and could unionize.

“Unions wanted them to, and the Obama labor board pretty much did what unions wanted,” Patrick Semmens, Vice President of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, explained to Campus Reform. “They’re looking for new sources of forced dues.”

[RELATED: Yale grad students hold pseudo-hunger strike over union contract]

He told Campus Reform that under President Obama, the five-person NLRB had a Democrat-nominated majority and expanded its jurisdiction further into higher education.

BC, a Catholic institution, petitioned the NLRB for an exemption based on its status as faith-based educational intuition, but the NLRB regional director rejected the petition on the premise that the government can distinguish between the “secular” and “religious” components of Boston College.

The NLRB then set a date for a referendum among eligible graduate students to determine whether they would form a local chapter of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union.

Professor Bruce Cameron, an expert on religion in labor law at Regent University, told Campus Reform that views the ruling as an “outrage.”

[RELATED: Feds decline to support unionization of Northwestern athletes]

“Which of these theologians at the NLRB are qualified to make a judgement on what’s religious and what’s not?” he asked, later adding that “these theologians at the NLRB have decided that they will now go out and decide whether you’re sufficiently religious, whether your organization is religious or not.”

He pointed out that the NLRB’s decision ran contrary to the 1979 Supreme Court case NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, which established the precedent that faith-based institutions, including educational institutions, are beyond the jurisdiction of the NLRB.

“The Board isn’t content with listening to what the Supreme Court says, so they come up with various theories,” he explained. “This is simply an effort by the NLRB… to buck what the U.S. Supreme Court has very clearly said.”

Cameron explained that one of the many consequences of unionization at a faith-based educational institution is the debate over health care. This forces two organizations with diametrically opposing views on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion to engage in “good-faith negotiations…all supervised by your government agent at the National Labor Relations Board.”

[RELATED: Grad students waste no time unionizing after NLRB ruling]

In an August 21 letter, David Quigley, Provost and Dean of Faculties at BC, announced that the college had filed “a request for review of the regional director’s decision and a motion to stay the election.”

The NLRB granted the motion and will consider the college’s request.

Semmens explained that with the departure of one of these Democrat-nominated board members, and President Trump’s replacement waiting on a Senate confirmation hearing, the NLRB is split two-two. In the meantime, the possibility of graduate student assistant unionization threatens students financial and intellectual security, as Massachusetts is not a right-to-work state and unions can compel membership.

If the Senate hearings go well, Semmens said, “Hopefully, cases like this… will begin to roll that back.”

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