Members rise up as administration tries to disband faculty union

In one swift move, the board of trustees at Saint Leo University in Central Florida has disbanded the faculty union—and its members are fighting back.

In a completely unexpected move and with no faculty consultation, trustees announced Oct. 23 they intend to create a new shared governance structure, scrapping a union that has served university workers for more than 40 years. The union is petitioning the president to continue to recognize the union and restore the authority of its contract.

Saint Leo University

“We never in a million years would have thought that the board of trustees, with just one vote, without discussion, could just do away with 44 years of a union,” says United Faculty of Saint Leo University President Valerie Wright. “We were just completely shocked.”

“I really can’t stress strongly enough that shared governance means involving faculty at all major decisions,” United Faculty of Florida President Karen Morian told WMNF Radio. “The fact that faculty were not even made aware that this was under consideration, let alone be able to speak to the trustees about this issue before the vote was taken, seems the opposite of shared governance.”

“This is faculty you have been asking to risk their health to keep the university afloat during a pandemic,” wrote one petitioner. “Any semblance of a functioning school year is the direct result of the efforts of your employees. To dissolve their union (and presumably your contractual obligation to them) while continuing to ask for their cooperation is grossly unethical and counter to everything St. Leo’s claims to stand for.”

Indeed, the fight is particularly troubling during a pandemic that has everyone on edge over campus safety and budgetary constraints.

Hundreds of faculty, alumni, community members and union supporters are signing a petition in protest. Many are especially disappointed that this Catholic-affiliated university is failing to live by its religious commitment to “cultivate servant leadership that respects and upholds the dignity of faculty, staff and all members of the university” and to “advocate for social justice, guided by Catholic social teaching.”

Because Saint Leo is a private Catholic institution, its union is vulnerable under the Trump administration’s National Labor Relations Board. In fact, when SLU’s president went to the university’s board of trustees to suggest disbanding the union, he cited a June 2020 NLRB ruling that limits union representation at faith-based institutions—a ruling that involved Bethany College, a Methodist institution in Kansas. The previous policy, set by the Obama administration, included faith-based institutions among those that could unionize.

Another consideration is the recent announcement that 17 Saint Leo satellite locations across the Southeastern United States will be closing permanently due to “enrollment trends and operational changes made as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.” Could that reflect financial stress that threatens staff at the main campus as well? It is difficult to say, since the private institution does not have to disclose such details.

Faculty are understandably concerned about job security, possible furloughs, threats to their health insurance during a pandemic and retaliation should they speak out against any possible changes. With no union, there is little to protect them.

“The reason I chose to complete my BA at Saint Leo University was not because of the beautiful grounds, renovated buildings, or integrated technology—it was because of the incredible faculty members who went above and beyond my expectations to support my educational goals and personal development,”’ wrote one petitioner, an alumnus of the university. “This is a direct attack on those incredible people, is against the University's proclaimed values, and is contrary to the sense of community that is customarily fostered at Saint Leo University.”

[Virginia Myers, photo by Blicarea]