This post was contributed by Bruce D. Bagley, an Attorney in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC’s Labor & Employment Practice Group in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
In still another break with long-standing precedent, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has once again eased the way for union organizing – this time for unions seeking to organize faculty at private sector universities and colleges. In Pacific Lutheran University, 361 NLRB No. 157 (December 2014), the Board adopted a new standard for determining when faculty may be considered to be "managerial employees," which in turn critically impacts whether they may be subject to unionization.
The seminal case in this controversial area of federal labor law is NLRB v. Yeshiva University, 444 U.S. 672 (1980), where the United States Supreme Court found that the faculty at Yeshiva were managerial employees and therefore excluded from coverage under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or Act). The Court found that the Yeshiva faculty "formulate and effectuate management policies by expressing and making operative the decisions of their employer." They had effective power to control or implement employer policies, such as deciding what courses would be offered, when they would be scheduled, to whom they would be taught, and determining teaching methods, grading policies, matriculation standards, which students would be admitted, retained, and graduated, etc.
In the years since 1980, the Board has struggled (at least according to some of the reviewing Courts of Appeal) with applying the Yeshiva standard. But more often than not the Board applied Yeshiva to determine that faculty, particularly tenured faculty, were closely aligned with the management of their respective institution, resulting in their being excluded from coverage under the Act.
In Pacific Lutheran, however, the Board has chosen to refine or interpret the Yeshiva standard in a manner making it harder to assert or conclude that faculty are managerial. Perhaps unfortunately for those who would have preferred the prior status quo, the facts in Pacific Lutheran easily lent themselves to those Board Members who were looking to expand coverage of the Act to cover previously-excluded faculty. The union had petitioned for a representation election in a unit of all contingent (non-tenure eligible) faculty teaching a minimum of three credits during an academic term, of which there were about 176 in the petitioned-for unit. The University asserted that approximately 40 of the 176 were managerial and therefore excluded from voting in any election that might be scheduled. The NLRB Regional Director concluded otherwise, including the 40 as eligible voters when he directed that an election take place. The University appealed to the Board, where at least 20 organizations filed various amicus briefs.
Unlike the faculty in Yeshiva, the contingent faculty at issue did not appear to exercise the same level of managerial control or implementation. The Board in Pacific Lutheran first laid out a focus upon five areas of policy making to examine whether faculty actually exercise control or make effective recommendations regarding university policies. The five areas to be examined are academic programs, enrollment management, finances, academic policy, and personnel policies/decisions, with an emphasis on the first three being "primary" areas and the latter two being "secondary." Then within each of those policy areas, the Board will seek to determine whether the faculty actually exercise control or make effective recommendations in those areas. If they do, then the Board will find the faculty to be managerial and exclude them from coverage under the NLRA. And the Board emphasized that, to be excluded, the faculty must have "actual–rather than mere paper—authority" and in order for recommendations to be considered effective, they "must almost always be followed by the administration."
Turning to the facts in Pacific Lutheran, the Board found that the faculty at issue were not managerial. According to the Board, the faculty had only limited participation in the three primary and two secondary areas of policy making noted above, noting particularly that they were typically employed on only one-year contacts which inherently limited their ability to control or make effective recommendations regarding university policy. The faculty at issue also had only limited participation in decisions affecting academic programs, were not permitted to serve on faculty standing committees, did not vote on enrollment management policies, had little or no involvement in decisions involving finances, and had limited involvement in both academic policy and personnel matters. In short, it appears that the Board may have seized upon a set of facts which in any event would have fallen short of the Yeshiva standard, in order to erect new barriers for colleges and universities to overcome in future cases where the facts might have been more conducive to finding managerial status under Yeshiva.
This case or future cases utilizing the Pacific Lutheran rationale will likely receive further review and analysis by the federal Courts of Appeal and possibly the Supreme Court. Private sector universities and colleges that wish to see their faculty remain non-unionized should however take heed. Most authorities predict that this case will spur union organizing of faculty, and therefore institutions should be evaluating their vulnerability and taking proactive steps now to lessen the likelihood of having to deal with a unionized faculty.