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Does the Pope Care About Workers' Rights? | The Nation

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Does the Pope Care About Workers' Rights?

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Catholic education will be front and center this week when Benedict XVI makes his first papal visit to America. On April 17, at Catholic University in Washington, DC, he will address more than 400 college, university, elementary and secondary school leaders. His subject will be the importance of Catholic education, and he'll probably argue for strict adherence to the usual orthodox Church teachings--a call for academics to behave and for bishops to insure that they do.

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Angela Bonavoglia
Angela Bonavoglia is the author of Good Catholic Girls:  How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church (...

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What Benedict is unlikely to address is the failure of many in the church hierarchy to abide by another social teaching that is far more pertinent to Catholic education right now: workers' rights. The workers in question are beleaguered Catholic elementary and high school teachers around the country.

Benedict may soon come face to face with their plight if members of the Lay Faculty Association, one of New York City's two teachers' unions, goes on strike as planned on the eve of his arrival. These Catholic school teachers have been working for eight months without a contract and have failed to settle with the Archdiocese.

To the casual observer, this strike makes it seem like Catholic school teachers are secure in their right to fight for just wages and working conditions. Yet in reality, they have legal protection for union activities only in a handful of states, thanks to the obstructionist tactics of Catholic bishops.

Despite literally centuries of Catholic social teaching promoting the right of workers to organize, Church authorities have fought Catholic teachers' organizing efforts since the 1970s, when they blocked union elections in Philadelphia and refused to accept the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as a bargaining agent for teachers in Chicago.

Another blow for organizing came in 1979 when the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Chicago Archdiocese, deciding that Catholic school teachers did not have the right to organize under the NLRB. The court ruled not on the constitutionality of such representation but on a technicality--that the 1935 National Labor Relations Act did not specifically include Catholic school teachers. That's not surprising, since nearly all teachers in 1935 were nuns or religious brothers, not lay people who had to earn a living.

Legal protections for organizing Catholic school teachers currently exist in New York because the Lay Faculty Association prevailed against the Archdiocese of New York in the US Court of Appeals, which determined that the teachers were indeed covered by the New York State Employment Relations Board.

In New Jersey, protection for unionizing workers exists only because the Camden Catholic teachers union fought the Camden diocese all the way to the state Supreme Court, which determined that Catholic school teachers could unionize and bargain collectively under the state constitution. The Minnesota State Supreme Court also has upheld protections for unionizing Catholic school teachers.

However, in recent years in other parts of the country, Catholic bishops have been busting longstanding Catholic school teachers' unions and stripping teachers of their right to unionize. In 2004, Archbishop Sean O'Malley ended thirty-six years of the Boston Archdiocese's negotiation of a single contract with the high schools by decentralizing the system and then refusing to recognize the union any longer.

Mary Chubb, a veteran Catholic school teacher, spent nearly ten years trying to gain recognition for elementary school teachers in St. Louis, Missouri. Bishop Raymond Burke summarily killed that movement in 2004 by issuing an unequivocal written decree stating that, "Neither the Archdiocese nor individual parishes will recognize or bargain collectively with any organization as a representative of the teachers."

In Scranton, Pennsylvania, the teachers are currently up in arms, picketing and threatening to strike because Bishop Joseph Martino, like O'Malley, reorganized the school system and then refused to recognize their union, which had been bargaining collectively for many area schools for roughly thirty years.

Some bishops defend their actions by accusing teachers of blatant self-interest, an unseemly focus on money and endangering the financial health of the schools. This is a shocking and unfair charge to make, considering the fact that the priest pedophilia crisis alone has already cost the American church over $2 billion.

These Bishops hope to pit teachers against parents--a strategy that is failing in Scranton, where both parents and students are joining the picket lines. They have also attempted to replace unions with employee relations programs, as Bishop Martino is doing in Scranton--a tactic that labor experts liken to the manipulative company-controlled "company unions" of the early twentieth century.

This anti-union activity threatens the Church's lay teachers, who are not in traditional labor unions and who make up an estimated 90 percent of the Church's 152,000 professional teaching ranks. They could all be forced to accept compromised salaries, benefits and pensions; sham grievance procedures; and the status of employees who can be fired at will. It also bears noting that women make up the overwhelming majority of Catholic school teachers, accounting for 75 percent of the teachers overall and more than 90 percent of elementary school teachers.

As for the treatment of the women trying to organize in St. Louis, Mary Chubb has characterized it as "real bullying and rudeness, and so disrespectful."

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