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 (September 18, 1998)


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Church Workers' Right to Organize

By Msgr. George G. Higgins

September 18, 1998

    The church has a long history of speaking out on justice and peace issues. Yet only in more recent times has the church made it clear that these teachings apply as well to the workings of its own institutions.
    The purpose of this collective self-examination -- prompted in large part by a statement of the 1971 assembly of the world Synod of Bishops titled "Justice in the World" -- is to assure that basic human rights are guaranteed in the church. The church "recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes," said the synod.     That the church currently faces difficult labor-management problems should come as no surprise. When American Catholicism was in its bricks-and-mortar period, building and staffing schools, hospitals and charities at an astonishing pace, the labor movement was busy organizing the industrial workplace. Only more recently have unions taken an interest in nonprofit institutions.
    Partly for this reason, many Catholic administrators have not yet reconciled themselves to the existence of so-called third parties in their institutions.
    Some Catholic health-care facilities have waged open warfare with employees over labor-management issues. On the brighter side, a number of Catholic institutions seem prepared to negotiate in good faith with bona fide unions if employees freely choose to organize.
    However, these institutions fear, among other things, that unions will create an "adversarial relationship" between labor and management, making it difficult to nurture a Gospel-oriented spirit of Christian community in the institutions.
    One highly respected theologian said it is important to preserve the freedom of individuals and groups to serve even when the institution may not be in a position to give what in secular areas might be regarded as proportionate compensation.
    If he had priests and nuns in mind, I agree. I would not agree, however, that the same applies to rank-and-file lay employees of Catholic institutions who organize for collective bargaining. 
    A number of lay people wish to serve the church for less than they could earn in some other line of work. They should be commended.
    The fact is, however, that in large-scale Catholic institutions with payrolls running into the hundreds and even thousands, the majority of lay employees do not qualify as church "professionals." They may not be church members. They aren't hired on the basis of religious affiliation.
    These men and women mop the floors of Catholic schools, work in Catholic hospital kitchens and perform other sometimes menial tasks in various institutions. They have not volunteered to serve the church for less than proportionate compensation.
    They are much like rank-and-file workers in other large-scale operations. They punch a time clock and submit to personnel policies established -- unilaterally as a general rule -- by management. Management also sets their pay scale also.
    Theoretically, they are free to take it or leave it. But many cannot afford to leave it.
    Finally, if the truth be told, their standard of living in many cases is considerably lower than that of church professionals under vows or a promise of obedience.
    This means that church leaders and administrators of church- related institutions must recognize the right of their employees to organize if the workers so desire. Attempts, direct or indirect, to circumvent or interfere with the free exercise of this right could divide the Catholic community and neutralize the effectiveness of our programs for social justice both at home and abroad.
    Which is simply another way of saying, with the 1971 synod, that "anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes."

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