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Catholic School Teachers' Unions
By Msgr. George Higgins
October 16, 1998
Devout Catholics, they are strongly committed to the church and its values and fully committed, often at personal sacrifice, to the cause of Catholic education. They also are committed, of course, to Catholic social teaching and are resolute in their demand that this teaching be implemented in the schools where they are employed.
They take their lead in this regard from the U.S. bishops' 1986 pastoral letter on Catholic social teaching and the U.S. economy which reads in part: "All church institutions must fully recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively with the institution through whatever association or organization they freely choose. In the light of new creative models of collaboration between labor and management ..., we challenge our church institutions to adopt new fruitful modes of cooperation."
The question arises as to why some Catholic school administrators oppose the right of their teachers to organize and bargain collectively.
In the late 1970s the U.S. Supreme Court took up the question, Are teachers in church-related schools covered by the National Labor Relations Act?
Early in 1979 the court ruled on this issue. It found "no clear expression of an affirmative intention of Congress" to place Catholic school teachers within reach of the NLRA. Furthermore, the ruling hinted strongly that even if Congress had intended otherwise, the court might have found the arrangements in violation of the First Amendment's free-exercise clause. Constitutional issue aside, it is important to understand exactly what the high court did and did not say.
The court said that the Catholic-school teachers right to organize for this purpose finds no protection under the NLRA. It did not question or negate their right to organize. Yet the distinction was lost on many observers. One widely circulated news story, typical of many others, was headlined "Court Bans Bargaining for Religious Schools."
Some have argued that unions are not the "only way" to meet the legitimate economic needs of teachers. Theoretically speaking, there may be something to be said for this point of view, but as a practical matter it is somewhat irrelevant. The question is, Are church people prepared to support the right of teachers to form unions if and when their teachers choose to do so?
Some Catholic opinion leaders have suggested that with unions in Catholic schools will come ideas and values that contradict or even undermine the faith. It has also been suggested that some associations of Catholic-school teachers are dominated by public educational lobbies with secular goals. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of unionized teachers in Catholic schools belong to unions which are neither dominated nor manipulated by public school unions. To the contrary, these Catholic unions strongly disagree with their public counterparts on a number of crucial issues affecting the integrity and well-being of the Catholic school system.
I know many of the officers of Catholic teachers' unions. They are exemplary Catholics in their personal and professional lives. They fully understand that their organizations must take serious account of those elements -- doctrinal, financial, etc. -- which make church-related schools significantly different from public schools.
I would go further and say that strong teachers' unions, given a willingness on the part of school administrators to cooperate with them in good faith, can make a valuable contribution to the betterment of the entire Catholic school system.
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