A New Collegiality Marks Catholic-School Labor Talks

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Baltimore--Acknowledging the need for more cooperation as Roman Catholic schools accelerate their historic shift to an overwhelmingly lay teaching force, church officials and unions that represent lay6teachers are declaring a "cease fire" in what has been a contentious relationship since the early 1970's.

More collegial contract-bargaining techniques, increases in salaries and benefits, and attempts to create more professional working conditions in some dioceses are indicators of a new spirit of accommodation on both sides, according to members of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers who met here this month.

A sign of the changing climate was the union's choice of a keynote speaker: the Rev. Thomas J. Gallagher, secretary of education for the U.S. Catholic Conference, the lobbying and policy organization for the nation's Catholic bishops.

"In the old days, we wouldn't have sat at the same podium," said John J. Reilly, president of the teachers' group.

"It's the beginning of a whole new style of relationship," said Father Gallagher after the meeting held Oct. 10 and 11.

Rita C. Schwartz, secretary-treasurer of the association, agreed. "We have to have a cease-fire long enough so we can discover our common goals," she said.

The latest round of contract negotiations in a number of dioceses where teachers' unions are most active provides examples of a new willingness to engage in give-and-take:

Lay teachers in the Archdiocese of Newark this month accepted a contract that for the first time rewards them for seniority and gives them more of a voice in school matters, as well as a number of fringe benefits the union had sought for several years. The negotiation process itself was "collegial," despite a threatened strike, the union's president said.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh has begun using a model for contract negotiations that participants say reduces the antagonism between teachers and management inherent in more traditional bargaining sessions. The technique, developed by Irving Goldaber, a consultant from the Miami-based Center for the Practice of Conflict Management, has been used in 80 school districts, including five Catholic dioceses.

The Pittsburgh diocese's last contract-signing for high-school teachers, in 1983, was "a celebration," one union official said.

Teachers in the Archdiocese of New York last year negotiated directly with several top officials for the first time, including the Archbishop, Cardinal John O'Connor, and succeeded in raising their base salary by $6,000 over a three-year period, the largest increase ever for the New York union.

But despite such encouraging developments, teachers at the meeting said, church leaders remain reluctant to extend to their own employees the same rights they have championed for other workers.

Referring to Pope John Paul II's statement last month to Catholic teachers that the church is "not merely an employer," Bruno J. Scuglia, president of the Federation of Pittsburgh Diocesan Teachers, said: "The Pope constantly praises workers in Poland, and then comes to America and says the exact opposite. It's absurd."

Trend Toward Lay Staff

Whatever the remaining differences, most church leaders concede that they have no choice but to work more closely with lay teachers, who represent about 80 percent of the 142,000 full-time faculty in Catholic schools, up from about 40 percent 15 years ago, according to figures compiled by the National Catholic Educational Association.

Since the 1950's, the number of priests, brothers, and nuns teaching in Catholic schools has declined steadily, as changing social and religious values have reduced the appeal of such vocations among Catholic young people. A majority of the nuns now teaching will reach retirement age in the next decade.

"Lay teachers are the future of Catholic schools, unless someone flys over the U.S. with a planeload" of nuns, Father Gallagher told union members.

Some church leaders are struggling to adjust to the situation, he said. "Some ask the question, 'Is the school still Catholic if it has an all-lay staff?"'

Altogether, unions represent about 7 percent of Catholic-school teachers. The nacst has 5,000 members and 17 affiliated unions, located mainly in the Northeast. Those unions were originally affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, but broke away in 1978 to form their own national association.

About 5,000 other lay teachers belong to unions not affiliated with the national group.

'No Input'

The unions began organizing in the early 1970's because lay teachers felt they had "no avenue to solve problems, no input into the schools," Ms. Schwartz said. In a system accustomed to an inexpensive workforce consisting mainly of nuns, she explained, there were few benefits, little job security, and no contract negotiations for lay teachers.

Only about 10,000 to 15,000 Catholic lay teachers sign some form of job contract, estimated the Rev. William Davis, a former superintendent in the Diocese of Arlington, Va., who is now personnel director for the Oblates of St. Francis, a religious order.

When Catholic teachers tried to take their grievances to federal labor-relations officials, they were stopped in the courts. A 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Catholic Bishops of Chicago v. National Labor Relations Board, held thatCatholic teachers were not covered by the National Labor Relations Act and that the nlrb thus had no jurisdiction in their disputes with church authorities.

The only weapon Catholic teachers have is to go on strike, Ms. Schwartz said, but the number of strikes has been declining in recent years.

Elementary-school teachers in the Pittsburgh diocese struck two years ago to force diocesan officials to allow them to hold union elections. Three years ago, high-school teachers in Camden, N.J., went on strike for a month.

"Unless there's a really horrendous situation, Catholic teachers prefer to settle," Ms. Schwartz said.

Unions have been more prevalent in high schools than in elementary schools, because secondary schools typically have a larger pool of teachers from which to organize. Elementary schools are operated mainly by individual parishes, and in many cases church officials do not allow teachers to set up a combined union for elementary teachers across parish lines.

'I've Never Met My Bishop'

While applauding the signs of more amicable labor relations in 8many dioceses, teachers at the meeting told "horror stories" about the refusal of some church leaders to meet with union representatives, "take-it-or-leave-it" contract offers, and exclusion of faculty members from planning on matters such as school consolidation.

Teachers said they felt particularly frustrated last year when the National Conference of Catholic Bishops released a pastoral letter on the U.S. economy that called for "just wages" for American workers and supported the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

The bishops' eloquent statement appears not to apply to the church's own employees, some teachers complained.

"I've never seen my bishop in person--I saw him in a parade once," said Janet Forster, a Pittsburgh teacher and union leader. "We see a great disparity between what the bishops as a whole say and what happens in our diocese."

Father Gallagher explained that bishops are not required by church law to follow the collective recommendations contained in the pastoral letter, and noted that the national conference is not a "policing" body. Bishops are considered the supreme church authorities in their respective dioceses.

Father Gallagher conceded that not all actions of bishops toward lay teachers have been justifiable. "Just because we do holy things and wear holy vestments doesn't mean we are holy," he said.

Adding to their frustration, said a number of teachers, are frequent pro-labor pronouncements by Pope John Paul II--who, they noted, has sometimes been called "the Solidarity Pope" because of his vocal support of the Polish workers' union.

On his tour of the United States last month, the Pontiff told Catholic teachers that he was aware of their financial sacrifices, but he reminded them that the church's primary mission is religious.

"For a Catholic educator, the church should not be looked upon as merely an employer," the Pope said, in an apparent reference to efforts by teachers to push for higher salaries.

Mr. Scuglia of the Pittsburgh union, who was listening to the Pope's Sept. 12 speech with 1,800 other teachers in a cavernous room in the Louisiana Superdome, said the memory of the statement still stung him.

"I was torn between laughter and a scream," he said.

Church leaders, he added, "always say, 'We're not the same as everyone else; we're the church.' That's baloney."

Ms. Schwartz agreed. "We're supposed to look at teaching in a Catholic school as a higher calling, but the church isn't reciprocating," she said. "You can't live on air, prayer, and holy water."

'Win-Win' Approach

Part of the cause of poor relations between some diocesan officials and teachers unions is "lack of communication," Father Gallagher said.

When he was superintendent of schools in Rockville Centre, N.Y., Father Gallagher said, teachers struck for six weeks in 1977, mainly because they and school officials did not discuss their differences.

"We were novices at this," he said. "When we saw this development, we ran off to the lawyers."

The union movement began "with a lot of emotion on all sides and a minimum of trust," said Michael J. Guerra, executive director of the secondary-schools department of the ncea and a former high-school principal and teacher. "The leadership perceived that the teacher movement was indifferent to the church's shrinking resources," said Mr. Guerra, who was not at the meeting. "I don't think either side had an accurate view of the other."

For several years in Pittsburgh, the teachers' union used the "traditional industrial model of collective bargaining where you bang each other over the head to see who wins," said Mr. Scuglia.

After a "long and nasty" strike in 1976, teachers and school officials decided to try Mr. Goldaber's model, called a "win-win" approach, or "collective gaining," because the process ended with both sides feeling they had "won." The diocese was the first Catholic school district, and only the third district in the country, to use the process.

Mr. Scuglia said that for the first time, there was no strife, and more issues were discussed.

"It doesn't mean all the problems get solved, but at least an attempt is made," he said. "From a Catholic point of view, it's more of what we're all about."

The model has since been used in the Hartford, Buffalo, St. Louis, and Camden, N.J., Catholic schools. The dioceses of Syracuse, N.Y., and Youngstown, Ohio, have developed their own bargaining models that also take a "collaborative" approach.

Financial Pressure

Union members say they are concerned about the finances of Catholic schools, which are under pressure from falling contributions to the church and increasing costs.

Mario Bernardo, a French teacher at Immaculate Conception High School in Washington, Pa., said he sits on his parish council and knows that the church's resources are limited. "We take that into account in negotiations," he said.

"We'd like the administration to understand that teachers are fighting to maintain quality in Catholic education, not destroy it," said Deborah E. Greh, president of the Lay Faculty Association in Newark. Higher salaries are essential to keep faculty from leaving for the public schools, she said.

Catholic-school teachers earn about 60 to 75 percent of what public-school teachers earn, which many teachers and administrators say contributes to high faculty turnover.

Efforts are underway in many dioceses to broaden the base of financial support for the schools, and to make Catholic lay people more aware of the church's financial needs, church leaders say. (See Education Week, Sept. 9, 1987.)

Alternatives to Tuition Hikes

Yet school administrators also feel pressure not to raise tuition because the schools serve a large low-income population, especially in urban areas, said Mr. Guerra. Since tuition accounts for most of the income of Catholic schools, "there's a real problem with increasing the fund base."

Some of the teachers at the meeting said the Catholic Conference should do more to lobby for federal support of private schools.

Father Gallagher said he planned to "be more aggressive" in pushing for federal and state aid to church schools. He also said he would favor the establishment of a permanent office within the Catholic Conference to lobby for such programs as vouchers and tuition tax credits.

He said his office would be "more supportive of public education" and would work with public-school organizations to try to find a compromise on the issue of vouchers for private-school tuition.

The clergyman also said he would do his part to foster communication among teachers' groups and the Catholic leadership, and invited the national union to participate in a symposium next May involving 20 Catholic organizations that will address the future of Catholic education.

Mr. Reilly, the nacst president, said he was optimistic about the future role of Catholic-teacher unions.

"Father Gallagher's right; things are changing for the better," Mr. Reilly said. "But there are still dioceses in the country that don't want me to visit."

Vol. 07, Issue 08

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