By Amy Littlefield
Betsy Pingree has been living with friends for free because she can’t afford an apartment while finishing her dissertation on the precarious conditions of migrant laborers in the 20th century. Standing with fellow graduate-student workers at Boston College who are demanding recognition of their union, she acknowledged the irony. Like many in her cohort on this leafy Catholic campus in the Boston area, she works as many as 60 hours a week on her research and teaching. She earns a stipend of $22,600 a year; the average one-bedroom apartment in Boston costs $11,000 more than that. She used to live with her husband, a disabled veteran, who helped support her with his government payments. Now that he works out of state, she can’t pay her own rent.
On March 10, Pingree stood outside a Gothic-style Jesuit church at the entrance to the school with other graduate teaching and research assistants, holding placards that read, “Worker rights are Catholic values.” The rally came one day before Boston College announced it would cancel on-campus classes and shift to online instruction because of the coronavirus threat. BC declared that while fully funded graduate students would keep their stipends and benefits, hourly paid graduate students would get a check only “if they are fulfilling their regular responsibilities—and work on campus.” Meanwhile, Sam Levinson, a chemistry PhD candidate, said research assistants like her who work in labs were feeling pressured by their supervisors to continue showing up for work until the university announced it would “ramp down” research by the end of the day on March 20. The crisis only underscored the lack of protection faced by these workers, who accuse Boston College of betraying the Jesuit tradition of reverence for unions by refusing to bargain with them after they won a union election in 2017. “Without a contract, we have no access to any kind of guarantee that our bosses will protect us from harm in this situation,” Levinson said. At the rally, the organizers hoped to grab the attention of a delegation from the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities that was visiting the campus as part of a review process through which schools like BC are supposed to demonstrate their commitment to Jesuit values, including on issues like payment for employees. While the university has negotiated with unions representing police and facilities workers, administrators insist that Pingree and her colleagues are students, not workers. And in opposing their right to form a union, the school has invoked a legal argument that has found increasing favor with federal agencies and courts: that BC’s Catholic mission puts the workers outside the protection of the law—in this case, outside the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces the right of private-sector workers to unionize.
Religiously affiliated institutions, from Catholic universities like Boston College to for-profit corporations with Christian owners like Hobby Lobby, have used arguments about religious freedom to win exemptions from an array of laws intended to protect workers over the past decade. Many of these cases concerned the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employer health plans cover birth control. But religious corporations have expanded such requests to seek ever-broader power over their workers, including the right to underfund employee pension plans and bust unions in the name of God. Some of these cases have been driven by groups like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which wants to limit government regulation of religious entities and represented Hobby Lobby in its suit over the ACA’s birth control requirement, enabling foster care and adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ parents and religious schools to fire employees with disabilities. Other cases have been brought by universities like Boston College that may have a financial rather than a religious motive for fighting unions on their campuses. “Employers have an incentive to refuse to bargain and just kind of rest on their religious character,” said Charlotte Garden, an associate professor at Seattle University School of Law. Her university, a Jesuit school, invoked a similar religious argument to defeat a union campaign by its adjunct professors.
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