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Catholic Teachers Start Union in St. Louis

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St. Louis

When Robin Heimos compares notes with public school educators, she's often glad she teaches in a Roman Catholic school.

Her school seems safer, she has more freedom to teach her own curriculum, and she senses that she gets more support from her students' parents.

But when it comes to pay scales, the 4th grade teacher at the St. Francis of Assisi School in Oakville, Mo., feels differently. Base salaries in the St. Louis Archdiocese's elementary parochial schools are about 45 percent less than in their public school counterparts.

To help close the gap, Ms. Heimos has been working since last spring to get something most public school teachers take as a given: a union. Last week, a gathering here of some 300 teachers adopted a constitution and elected Ms. Heimos their president.

They're now seeking recognition from the diocese's 24-member school board, which has both lay and religious members chosen by the archbishop and current board members.

"We're working at schools we're very proud of, and we can't afford to send our kids there," remarked Ms. Heimos, who pays about $6,700 a year to the system she works in so her two children can attend Catholic schools.

"Next year when I sign my contract, I just want to be able to look at myself in the mirror and know that I stood up for what I believe in," she said after the meeting.

'Late Bloomers'

Although unions have long been a fact of life in American public education, Catholic school teachers are much less likely to be represented by an organization with collective bargaining rights.

But labor organizers in Catholic education say unions and the church are a natural marriage.

Since Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical on labor organizing more than a century ago, the church has explicitly supported the rights of workers to unionize.

"A teachers' organization is a teachers' organization, and their members should be treated the same way whether they're at Catholic schools or public schools," said Rita Schwartz, the president of the Philadelphia-based National Association of Catholic School Teachers, which holds its annual convention there this week. Ms. Schwartz is also assisting the St. Louis effort.

The association includes about 25 locals in its membership, representing some 5,000 Catholic school teachers. Nearly 150,000 teachers work in more than 8,000 Roman Catholic schools throughout the United States.

Although Ms. Schwartz says the number of locals is growing, she feels teachers in too many dioceses are slow to organize.

"Catholic lay teachers are late bloomers in terms of getting organized and taking control of issues that affect them," Ms. Schwartz told the St. Louis group. The problem, she contends, is that Catholic school systems don't always practice what the Catholic Church preaches, sometimes refusing to recognize new groups.

Issues of Parity

For Ms. Heimos, the need for a union became clear last April when she and co-workers at St. Francis of Assisi compared their pay scales with those of the teachers in St. Louis' eight archdiocesan high schools, who are represented by their own 30-year-old union.

They found that while their starting salaries were nearly equal, annual increases were bigger at the Catholic high schools.

The disparity upset elementary school teachers already aware of the pay disparities between them and public school teachers. While the Catholic school teachers have a base pay of $16,890, new teachers in the St. Louis public schools make $24,551.

Further, the parochial elementary teachers accrued fewer sick days than the Catholic high school teachers, paid more for their family health benefits, and received annual tuition breaks of $500 for their children, while the Catholic high school teachers received full tuition waivers at the archdiocesan high schools.

The Archbishop's Whim

Observers of organized labor and Catholic education suspect teachers will continue to form new locals so long as lay personnel make up the vast majority of school staffs and the nation's dioceses feel strapped for cash.

Since the 1950s, when nuns made up a majority of the Catholic school teaching force, the portion of U.S. Catholic school teachers who are lay people has jumped from about 10 percent to 90 percent.

The shift, which was forced by a decline in the number of religious vocations, pushed many dioceses into a financial corner. The new teaching force demanded better pay, which increased the cost of operating schools. At the same time, the church didn't want to raise tuition to prohibitively high levels. Nationwide, average annual tuition is about $1,700 at Catholic elementary schools and $4,578 at Catholic high schools.

Teachers in the St. Louis diocesan high schools credit their union with securing a better pay scale than that of the elementary school teachers.

"They're not great, but they would not be the salaries we have today" without the union, said Mary John, the president of the St. Louis Archdiocesan Teachers Association.

Over the years, Ms. John's union has also won new grievance procedures and tenure policies.

Relations between the high school local and the archdiocese are rarely contentious. Ms. John recalls only one instance when members held an "informational picketing" after school.

"We're at the whim of the archbishop," Ms. John said. "So if he decides to not recognize us, we're gone. I don't think he will," she said. "He's never threatened it."

'Not Adversaries'

One of the biggest hurdles for Catholic school organizations like the St. Louis locals is the fact that they, along with their public school brethren, cannot appeal to the National Labor Relations Board.

In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the NLRB, which handles disputes between private employers and their workers, had no jurisdiction over parochial schools. Supporters of the decision argued that granting the board jurisdiction would have allowed unwarranted interference by the government in the affairs of religious institutions.

At about the same time, Catholic school teachers began breaking off from their affiliation with the American Federation of Teachers, losing some of the strength of numbers. Disputes over proposals to use public funds for private education prompted the split.

Consequently, St. Louis church officials have plenty of discretion.

Archdiocesan officials said they don't oppose the idea of an elementary teachers' union, which, at about 2,300 members, would far outnumber the 220-member high school union.

But they also cautioned that a systemwide union might not be possible because the elementary school teachers are employees of individual parishes, while the teachers in the eight high schools work for the archdiocese.

John Schwob, the president of the diocese school board, said the members will begin to consider union recognition at a meeting this week. The biggest question is whether the teachers must organize individual groups at each parish or districtwide, he said.

"We're not looking at them as adversaries in this," he said. "As a church, we've always recognized the rights of workers to form unions."

As for the teachers, they're already learning union ways: Ms. Heimos said her group won't accept organizing on a parish-by-parish basis.

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