Catholic Teachers Organize

By Jeff Archer — November 01, 1996 4 min read

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 the freedom to teach her own curriculum, and she senses that she gets more support from her students’ parents.

But when it comes to pay, the 4th grade teacher at the St. Francis of Assisi School in suburban St. Louis feels differently. Base salaries in the St. Louis Archdiocese’s elementary parochial schools are about 45 percent lower than those in the city’s public school district.

To help close that pay gap, Heimos has been working since last spring to get something most public school teachers take for granted: a union. In early October, a group of some 300 Catholic elementary school teachers adopted a constitution and elected Heimos their president. Now the union is seeking recognition from the diocese’s 24-member school board.

“We are working at schools we’re very proud of, and we can’t afford to send our kids there,” says Heimos, whose two children do in fact attend Catholic schools to the tune of $6,700 a year. “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.”

Although unions have long been a fact of life in American public education, Catholic school teachers have been slow to organize. Until the 1960s, most Catholic schools were staffed by nuns who worked for next to nothing. But with the decline of the religious vocations over the past several decades, that has changed. Now the overwhelming majority of Catholic school teachers--some 90 percent--are lay men and women who require a livable income. This shift has put a financial strain on Catholic schools and contributed to the rise of unions.

Labor organizers contend that unions and the Catholic church should be 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 bargain collectively.

But there is a problem, according to Rita Schwartz, president of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers: Catholic school systems don’t always practice what the church preaches. Many diocese, she says, refuse to recognize teacher groups. “A teachers’ organization is a teachers’ organization, and its members should be treated the same way whether they’re at Catholic schools or public schools,” says Schwartz, who is helping the St. Louis elementary teachers.

The NACST, which is based in Philadelphia, has about 25 local affiliates that represent some 5,000 Catholic school teachers. Nationwide, nearly 150,000 teachers work in more than 8,000 Roman Catholic schools.

Although Schwartz says the number of union 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,” she says.

For Heimos, the need for a union became clear last April when she and co-workers at St. Francis of Assisi compared their salaries with those of the archdiocese’s high school teachers, who are represented by their own 30-year-old union. Starting salaries were equal, but annual increases were bigger at the high schools.

The disparity angered elementary school teachers, who were already aware of the difference between their salaries and those of area public school teachers. While new teachers in the city’s public schools make roughly $24,500, Catholic school teachers start out at $16,890.

Further, the parochial elementary teachers accrue fewer sick days than Catholic high school teachers and pay more for their family health benefits. They also receive annual tuition breaks of only $500 for their children, while the Catholic high school teachers receive full tuition waivers at archdiocesan high schools.

Teachers in the diocesan high schools say it was their union that secured them the decent salaries. “They’re not great, but they would not be the salaries we have today” without the union, says Mary John, president of the St. Louis Archdiocesan Teachers Association. Over the years, the union has also won grievance procedures and tenure rights.

Relations between the high school union and archdiocese officials are rarely contentious, John says. She recalls only one instance when members held an “informational picketing” after school. John concedes that the union operates “at the whim of the archbishop. If he decides to not recognize us, we’re gone.”

One of the biggest problems for Catholic school unions is that they cannot appeal unfair labor practices 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 say it appropriately protected a religious institution from government meddling.

Officials for the St. Louis Archdiocese say they do not oppose the idea of an elementary teachers’ union. But they caution 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.

The biggest question, says John Schwob, president of the diocese school board, is whether the teachers must organize districtwide or as individual groups at each parish. “We’re not looking at them as adversaries in this,” he says. “As a church, we’ve always recognized the rights of workers to form unions.”

As for the teachers, they’re ready to take a stand. The new group, Heimos says, won’t accept parish-by-parish organizing. It has to be districtwide.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Catholic Teachers Organize