Saint Leo University draws challenge after sidestepping faculty union

Six months after the school decided not to recognize the union, charges are filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
Students walk in front of Saint Leo Abbey on the campus of Pasco County's Saint Leo University, where faculty members are challenging the school's decision to no longer recognize their union.
Students walk in front of Saint Leo Abbey on the campus of Pasco County's Saint Leo University, where faculty members are challenging the school's decision to no longer recognize their union. [ Times (2007) ]
Published April 23, 2021|Updated April 24, 2021

When faculty at Saint Leo University heard through an email last October that the union representing them for the last 44 years would no longer be recognized, they were stunned.

In the months since then, union leaders have held news conferences with statewide faculty unions, created an online petition and appealed to clergy members on the Saint Leo board of trustees.

Last week, the union took another step, filing nine charges against the Pasco County university with the National Labor Relations Board, including failure to recognize the union and refusal to bargain in good faith.

The union’s previous contract expired in 2016, but the university had agreed to recognize the old contract until a new one was negotiated. Then in October, the board of trustees voted to chart “a new path.”

Of the university’s 116 faculty members, 70 were union members.

In a statement at the time, Saint Leo board of trustee chairman D. Dewey Mitchell said the Catholic university would come up with a new shared governance structure that would help the school be “more agile in the fast-moving world of higher education.”

Saint Leo president Jeffrey Senese said the university looked forward to working “side by side” with faculty “to make important decisions about academic standards, working conditions, compensation and benefits, and strategic planning.”

The decision followed a ruling last summer by the National Labor Relations Board that said the quasi-judicial panel does not have jurisdiction over faculty members at religious colleges and universities. The board, made up of mostly Trump administration appointees, reversed an Obama-era decision that was seen as a win for unions at private colleges and universities.

Also impacting the landscape is a January 2020 U.S. Court of Appeals decision stating that Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University did not have to bargain with its union because its religious mission places it outside the board’s jurisdiction.

Valerie Wright, president of the Saint Leo faculty union, said the university’s decision goes against Catholic teachings, including statements from Pope Francis supporting labor unions.

“How could they do this in the middle of the pandemic?” she asked. “Everyone is already stressed. When you lose the contract, you lose the safeguards.”

Faculty morale is low, she said, and tenured faculty worry they could lose their positions. The union continues to meet with United Faculty of Florida leaders, Wright said.

Joseph Fahey, chair of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, said in a statement that the university has a “moral obligation rooted firmly in Catholic social teaching to support the faculty union at SLU.”

“In Catholic theology, no civil law may override the natural moral law that is rooted in the divine law,” he said.

Saint Leo spokeswoman Mary McCoy said no interviews on this subject would be granted at this time, but added in an email that the university is confident its actions comply with National Labor Relations Board rules.

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She echoed what Senese, the university president, said last fall about Saint Leo wanting to work with its faculty on a number of issues.

“Saint Leo University is committed to continuing this work,” McCoy said.