Duquesne University laid off nearly all its part-time English faculty last week prompting criticism from union organizers who cast the move as both retaliatory and possibly illegal.
The department is at the center of a labor battle still being adjudicated by federal regulators more than three years after faculty voted to unionize with the United Steelworkers.
English adjuncts were instrumental in the 2012 organizing effort, according to organizer Robin Sowards, who represents USW’s Academic Workers Association. Ten of the 11 members of Duquesne’s adjunct English faculty were notified last week that they would not be offered teaching appointments in the spring semester, he said.
Sowards cites the ongoing dispute and the assertion that only English faculty have been affected as just cause for a federal investigation.
“We suspect that what Duquesne is doing here may be unlawful," Sowards said.
The group filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board on Friday.
In a written statement Friday, Duquesne spokeswoman Bridget Fare denied any connection between the layoffs and union activity.
“Adjuncts in all of our schools of study are hired based upon a variety of factors including enrollment, available full-time faculty, number of course sections and more,” Fare wrote. “These factors are dynamic and change each semester. Each semester the need is evaluated and decisions are made based upon the specific situation."
Any reduction or increase in the number of adjuncts needed has "absolutely nothing to do with the union," Fare wrote.
Earlier this year the National Labor Relations Board rejected Duquesne’s claim that, as a religious-affiliated institution, the university is exempt from board jurisdiction and therefore under no obligation to collectively bargain with employees.
Duquesne is appealing the decision.
Among those told this week that they would not be hired back is English professor Clint Benjamin, one of two adjunct faculty who testified at an April NLRB hearing.
Benjamin and the other adjunct, Adam Davis, are identified in a footnote to Duquesne’s brief appealing the NLRB decision in which the university asserts “the right to not rehire both [Benjamin and Adams] and replace them with professors willing and/or better able to incorporate Duquesne’s Catholic, Spiritan mission into their courses.”
The union is asking the National Labor Relations Board to investigate Benjamin’s dismissal in light of that statement.
“That language… does read, certainly to my eye, as a threat against those two individuals,” Sowards said. “Employers are often initially hostile to their employees wanting to unionize, but it’s pretty unusual for attorneys to threaten people in legal papers. That’s kind of bizarre, really.”
Davis, who teaches in the history department, was not among those affected by the layoffs.
Benjamin declined to speculate about the possible motivation for his and his colleagues’ dismissal – about which he said they were given little information – though he acknowledged it could have been related to enrollment, which can fluctuate. But in the absence of a working relationship between the union and the administration, he said, there is no way to learn more.
“If they had recognized our union, we wouldn’t have had this imbroglio, this conflict,” Benjamin said.
Sowards echoed that sentiment, saying there is no obvious connection between the layoff notices and the union activity of those affected, but that union recognition would have provided both transparency and a means for resolving or avoiding such issues without involving regulators.
Separate from the charge that the layoffs were retaliatory or meant to intimidate other employees, the union also wants the labor board to look into possible motivations of a more strategic nature: specifically, Sowards said, “that it’s an attempt to erode the bargaining unit, to take work and shift it from people who are in the union to people who are not in the union.”
Both would constitute labor-law violations under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act and, if substantiated, could result in penalties including restitution and reinstatement of the laid-off workers.
University officials say some adjuncts could still be hired back in time for the coming semester depending on enrollment, faculty availability and other factors.
“Courses for spring 2016 have not been finalized and teaching assignments will be based on need,” Fare said. “Although the situation isn't finalized yet, as a courtesy, adjuncts were given advance notice about projected available spring classes.
“It’s completely false to suggest that any adjunct has been fired,” she said.