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Parochial Teachers Take Lead on Strike Front

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With the school year now under way for nearly all the nation's districts, the only teachers to strike a big city system so far have come from outside public education.

Lay Roman Catholic high school teachers in Philadelphia--home to the country's second-largest parochial school system--went on strike last week after failing to negotiate a new contract with their archdiocese.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia runs 22 secondary schools in five counties, and the work stoppage affected some 23,000 high school students. Teachers in the system's K-8 schools, which serve another 86,000 students, are not represented by a union and therefore were not affected.

The walkout was the first strike of Catholic teachers in the City of Brotherly Love in 21 years.

"I was terribly disappointed that it had to come to this," Rita C. Schwartz, the president of the 950-member Association of Catholic School Teachers Local 1776, said after announcing the strike.

Teachers began picketing their high schools Sept. 3, when freshman orientation was scheduled.

Nonetheless, archdiocesan officials told students to report to school as planned. The first three days of school--most of which were to be devoted to administrative tasks--were expected to be run by administrators, the schools' 220 religious teachers, and upperclassmen, officials said. About 90 percent of the system's teachers are lay.

Regular classes were to begin this week.

"We don't know what we're going to do Monday," Monsignor Philip J. Cribben, the secretary of education for the archdiocese, said in an interview last week.

Following the strike vote, the archdiocese quickly arranged to resume negotiations with the union.

Tuition Hikes?

Salary has been the biggest sticking point in negotiations between the archdiocese and the union.

Starting high school teachers in the archdiocese receive an annual salary of $24,800, and the pay scale tops out at $47,000. In the city's public school system, by comparison, new teachers receive $28,135 annually, while the most experienced teachers receive as much as $58,434.

Although the Catholic high school teachers have not been seeking parity with their public school counterparts, they are asking for a three-year contract that includes annual increases of $2,600 to $2,700. The archdiocese, which says that its teachers already are among the highest paid in any parochial system in the East, has offered annual increases of between $1,400 and $1,700.

The archdiocese contends that raising salaries by much more would force a tuition hike, which could prompt parents to pull their children from the system. The end result could be a reduction in teaching positions, archdiocesan officials say.

"We were raising tuitions $250 a year in the late '80s and '90s, and we were losing 1,500 students a year," Monsignor Cribben said. The system this year raised annual high school tuition by $100, to $2,950.

But union officials maintain that the archdiocese can raise teachers' salaries without jacking up tuition.

"They use that over and over again as a scare tactic," Ms. Schwartz asserted. "There's got to be another way to find money other than burdening the parents."

To a great extent, the union must depend on the strength of its own numbers to sway the archdiocese. Unlike their colleagues in the state's public schools, Catholic teachers cannot seek assistance from the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. ("Teachers in Pa. Catholic Schools Seek Board's Aid," Feb. 5, 1997.)

Last spring, the state supreme court ruled that the board did not have jurisdiction over Catholic teachers.

The union had argued that lay school teachers in the Catholic system should be considered public employees under the state's Public Employee Relations Act, which covers private nonprofit and charitable organizations.

But the state high court ruled that granting such jurisdiction could lead to unconstitutional church-state entanglements. The same reasoning led the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979 to rule that the National Labor Relations Board, the federal body that handles disputes between private employers and their workers, has no jurisdiction over church schools.

Action in Camden

Another Catholic school labor dispute erupted last week across the Delaware River from Philadelphia where high school teachers in the Diocese of Camden, N.J., gave union leaders the green light to call a strike if further contract talks broke down.

There, too, the dispute centered on salary negotiations between the diocese and the 225-member South Jersey Catholic School Teachers Organization.

"The diocese, counter to what it preaches, is asking the users of the school and those who staff them to bear the final cost of running the schools," charged William J. Blumenstein, the union's president.

A strike, if called, would affect 5,000 students in eight high schools. As in Philadelphia, the Diocese of Camden argues it cannot accept the union proposal without asking parents to pay more. In the 1995-96 school year, the school system ran a budget deficit of $1.2 million, officials said.

"It's a vicious cycle: If you price Catholic schools out of the reach of some parents, then enrollment will drop," said David Coghlan, the system's superintendent.

Some Catholic education experts point out that the conditions that precipitated the two disputes exist in many Catholic school systems, where a gap between parochial and public teachers' salaries persists and dioceses are reluctant to raise tuition. ("Catholic Teachers Start Union in St. Louis," Oct. 9, 1996.)

"The people who work in Catholic institutions are sacrificing people, but there's a point at which the sacrificing has to stop," said the Rev. Patrick J. Sullivan, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and an expert in organized labor and the Catholic Church.

In contrast to the work stoppage at Philadelphia's Catholic high schools, the nation's largest public school districts have begun the academic year without a strike. Strike activity, in fact, has been unusually quiet nationwide. Only a few unions in smaller districts have gone out on strike, although teachers in Columbus, Ohio, are poised for a walkout. ("New-Style Teachers' Union Resorts to Old-Style Tactics," Sept. 3, 1997.)

"There has been an effort to collaborate with management in terms of bringing about conditions that allow for quality education without going toward a strike," said Reg Weaver, the vice president of the 2.3-million member National Education Association.

Picketing the Union

One public school teachers' union, however, did find itself embroiled in a strike last week, but this time the union was the target of the picketing. On Labor Day, approximately 200 workers began picketing their employer--the Ohio Education Association.

The striking workers belong to two unions, one representing professional staff, and the other, support staff, of the OEA, an NEA affiliate. The dispute there focuses on health and retirement benefits.

The work stoppage in Ohio means many OEA locals will be without labor-relations consultants during current contract negotiations, said Sharon Sutherland, a spokeswoman for the Professional Staff Union, one of the striking groups.

"This is kind of unusual," she said, "because we have a union striking against a union."

PHOTO: Teachers picket outside Archdiocese of Philadelphia offices last week. The strike could affect students in 22 Catholic high schools.
--AP/Wide World

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