Catholic teachers call off strike

April 3, 2008 9:00:00 PM PDT
The Federation of Catholic Teachers called off its unfair labor practice strike Monday night after negotiating with the Archdiocese of New York's Association of Catholic Schools. Another bargaining session is scheduled to take place Friday, April 11.

Still, less than two weeks before Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the city, the Archdiocese of New York faces potential embarrassment over a bitter battle for new contracts with lay faculty at its 216 Roman Catholic schools.

The archdiocese is embroiled in disputes over wages, health care and pensions with two lay teachers' unions - the Federation of Catholic Teachers representing 3,000 teachers at 206 schools and the Lay Faculty Association with 450 teachers at 10 schools. Together they serve about 100,000 students in the New York area.

To call attention to the problem, the LFA has threatened to go on strike during the pope's visit to New York City on April 18-20.

LFA spokesman Henry Kielkucki said teachers also might set up an informational picket line in front of St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, which the pope is scheduled to visit.

Federation president Mary-Ann Perry said her union had no plans to picket papal events.

While the two unions have separate tactics, the underlying issues are the same - concerns about rising health insurance premiums and what they claim are inadequate salaries and pensions.

Union officials and experts who track financial issues in the Catholic church say there are similar labor issues in archdioceses around the country, with New York falling somewhere in the middle in pay and benefits. In part, teachers in the greater New York area feel more financial pressure than their counterparts elsewhere because of the high cost of living.

Catholic school teachers have traditionally earned less than their public school counterparts, an average of $45,000 compared to $64,000.

Through the early '80s, Catholic school students were taught largely by nuns and priests, who essentially worked for free.

As the number of non-secular faculty declined, more lay teachers were hired. Today, about 85 percent of the faculty at the 216 schools in the New York archdiocese are lay teachers, Kielkucki said.

Unlike nuns who live in convents rent free, the lay faculty has mortgages and other expenses to worry about, said Kielkucki. "That has to be included in the equation," he said.

After the archdiocese demanded steep increases in health care premiums, Perry said, the union requested health insurance data to determine if there were alternatives.

The archdiocese still has not provided all the information, prompting the union last week to file an unfair labor practice complaint with the state against the archdiocese, she said.

"We simply cannot afford the increases in medical coverage payments being demanded by the archdiocese," said Perry.

Archdiocese spokesman Joe Zwilling said officials were working on the request. "We've told them it's in the final stages of preparation," he said Monday.

Due to budget constraints, the archdiocese has closed more than a dozen schools over the last four years, and plans to close six more this year.

On Monday, 125 federation teachers set up picket lines at eight Catholic schools in the Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan to protest the health care issue.

Last week, more than 200 teachers with the other union held a one-day walkout at 10 other Catholic schools.

Kielkucki, whose union struck for one month in 2001, said the lower pay is steeped in a mentality that teaching at a Catholic school is "a mission," not a job, and that the "reward comes in the next life."

Chuck Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University, said the church isn't used to compensating lay people based on their qualifications.

"The explosion of health care expenses has every employer reeling with this huge rise in medical coverage and the church is no exception," he added.

Kielkucki said he's learned that the archdiocese may close all of its schools April 17-18 in honor of the pope's visit. He believes the closure is motivated by the archdiocese's desire to avoid embarrassment if the LFA strikes. The union plans to meet with the archdiocese Thursday, and will decide after that whether to walk off the job. Zwilling wasn't immediately available to comment because he was in a meeting, a spokeswoman said.

The archdiocese covers schools in Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx and Westchester County, and six counties north of the city. Brooklyn and Queens are covered by the Brooklyn Diocese. Long Island is covered by the Diocese of Rockville Centre.