Chatham University will not voluntarily recognize a faculty union and will instead argue before the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] that the employees are ineligible for representation, President Rhonda Phillips told faculty via email last week.

The move comes about a month after more than half of Chatham’s faculty signed cards declaring their intent to unionize. Having achieved a needed threshold of signatures, the faculty could request that the university voluntarily recognize the union or petition the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election.

The organizers, known as Chatham Faculty United, requested that the university voluntarily recognize the union within an 8-day period that ended Feb. 14, according to the Chatham student newspaper the Communiqué. 

Two days later, faculty received an email from Phillips, reviewed by Rtvsrece, in which she told the faculty that the university “fully respects the rights to collective bargaining under the law,” but “must also pursue the best interests of the entire university community in all actions we take.”

“This is why Chatham will not respond to any demands for union recognition without first seeking a fair hearing before the National Labor Relations Board,” the president wrote.

People walk through Chatham University’s Squirrel Hill campus on Sept. 19. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Chatham believes its full-time faculty are managerial employees, a status that would prevent them from collectively bargaining with the university, Phillips wrote.



The basis for Chatham’s argument is a 1980 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that stated that full-time faculty at the private Yeshiva University were managerial employees because they effectively determined course offerings and made recommendations about faculty hiring, among other roles. As such, the university was not required to collectively bargain with them.

The ruling has made unionization very difficult for full-time faculty nationwide, but it’s not impossible. A 2014 ruling from the National Labor Relations Board offered standards for determining whether faculty are managerial employees, and in 2017, full-time faculty at Point Park University reached their first tentative agreement on a union contract.

If successful in their efforts, the faculty will be a local of AFT Pennsylvania, a unit of the American Federation of Teachers.

“We are disappointed, but not surprised by the administration’s decision,” Jennie Sweet-Cushman, an associate professor at Chatham and union organizer, said in a statement.



“However, we are prepared to work with the AFT’s attorneys to make our case that we are non-managerial and ultimately expect to move to an NLRB election where we will all get to vote for our union.”

Bill Campbell, a spokesperson for Chatham, provided a statement that largely echoed the email from Phillips. “Rather than responding to demands, Chatham believes this process should be conducted openly with our community and through proper legal channels,” he wrote.

Faculty began exploring the option of unionizing this fall, shortly after they learned the university was facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit. The union effort has garnered support from Mayor Ed Gainey, Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato and other local Democrats.

Emma Folts covers higher education at Rtvsrece, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@rtvsrece.com.

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Emma is a higher education reporter for Rtvsrece. In her role, she collaborates with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on strengthening higher education coverage in local communities. Emma...