Teaching Profession

Catholic Teachers See Limited Union Activity

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 01, 2003 5 min read
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A nine-day strike in September by teachers at Roman Catholic high schools in Philadelphia has added a new chapter to nearly four decades of efforts by Catholic-school teachers to unionize.

While the Philadelphia teachers say the strike helped them earn respect locally, it also left them feeling demoralized that local Catholic officials hadn’t conceded more. Across the country, teachers in Catholic schools echo those sentiments in telling stories of trying to unionize and negotiate.

Some point to what they argue is a double standard: Church leaders have long supported workers’ rights to organize, they say, but often resist such movements among their own teachers.

“The church thinks you have lots of rights to organized labor unless you work for them,” said Nan Sulik, a science teacher at the 1,200-student St. Hubert High School in Philadelphia.

Catholic-school teachers who have unionized to win higher salaries and better benefits are in a minority in their sector—and actions such as strikes among Catholic educators are rare.

At least 8,000 of the nation’s 150,000 lay Catholic-school teachers—or 5 percent—have joined labor unions. Most are secondary school teachers.

Catholic educators say it’s easier for high school teachers to organize because they usually are employed directly by a local diocese and can band together throughout that area. Catholic elementary schools are usually run by individual parishes, and their teachers typically must unionize on a school-by-school basis.

By contrast, 85 percent of public school teachers are members of labor unions—and just about every school year brings a flurry of public school teachers’ strikes.

Catholic-school teachers say they have limitations on negotiating power because their salaries are financed by parents’ tuition payments, rather than by a broader group of taxpayers. Many said in interviews that they were resigned to the fact that they would always be paid somewhat less than their counterparts in public schools.

“If you push too hard and price yourself too high, you lose students, and then you lose jobs,” said Michael J. DeSantis, the president of the Cleveland High School and Academy Lay Teachers Association, a union for Catholic high school teachers employed by the Diocese of Cleveland.

Deal Questioned

But many of the more than 1,000 lay high school teachers working for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia were wondering last week if they should have pushed harder, said Frank J. Fedele, a math teacher at the 800-student Northeast Catholic High School in Philadelphia.

The teachers approved a new three-year contract Sept. 15 on a close vote, 486-434, after holding a strike that delayed the start of classes for six school days.

The teachers in Philadelphia’s Catholic schools were represented during the strike by the nation’s oldest Catholic-school teachers’ union, the Philadelphia-based Association of Catholic Teachers Local 1776, founded in 1966.

According to Mr. Fedele, who is the union representative at his high school, the union’s most important gain was to persuade the archdiocese to drop a proposed co-payment for hospitalization in the teachers’ medical plan. He characterized the salary increase in the new contract as “insignificant” and not worth a strike. The teachers won a cumulative raise of 9 percent over three years. Their average salary is now $38,000.

Some other archdiocesan teachers also sounded bitter last week.

“We have a diocese that seems to have money for all kinds of things, but not for their teachers,” said Mary C. Edwards, who is in her 27th year of teaching religion at Philadelphia’s Archbishop Ryan High School.

“The church will often talk about sacrifices with the Catholic teachers,” she said. “Unfortunately, we don’t see the same sacrifices of people who are in positions of authority.”

Officials of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia were unavailable for comment last week.

Church’s Role

According to the Washington- based National Catholic Educational Association, efforts by Catholic-school teachers to organize at least at the secondary school level have remained flat for more than a decade.

From 1985 to 1999, the percentage of the nation’s 1,200 Catholic high schools that collectively negotiated teachers’ contracts stayed around 22 percent.

Rita C. Schwartz, the president of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers, based in Philadelphia, said that Catholic bishops, pastors, and administrators often try to discourage teachers from unionizing.

“When schools or dioceses hear the teachers are interested in unionizing, they give them a big raise in pay to thwart the union,” she said. “They’ll give you money before they cede any of their power and control.”

Most of the nation’s Catholic-school teachers’ unions, including Philadelphia’s Local 1776, are affiliated with the NACST. Its 26 affiliates include unions in Cleveland and Portland, Ore.

A refrain among Catholic- school unionists is that church leaders don’t practice what they preach concerning the rights of workers.

“The history has been that teachers who organize get fired,” said Michael A. Milz, the president of the Scranton Diocese Association of Catholic Teachers. “It’s institutionalized hypocrisy.”

Sister Glenn Anne McPhee, the secretary for education of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, based in Washington, said she couldn’t address such criticism on a national level. “The conference does not speak for the dioceses of the United States. The dioceses are autonomous,” she said.

Ms. Schwartz said that federal law discourages Catholic-school teachers from organizing. She cited a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said those teachers are excluded from protection under the federal National Labor Relations Act, enacted in 1935. In other words, she said, they can be fired for trying to form a union.

Once organized, though, Catholic teachers’ unions claim they’ve accomplished a lot.

Ms. Edwards, the religion teacher in Philadelphia, said she “wouldn’t work for the church without a union.”

“You wouldn’t have due process,” she said. “You wouldn’t have job security. You wouldn’t have the wages and benefits we have.”

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