Church worker dispute resolved

Almost two months after five south Texas church workers were fired for unionizing, the ensuing dispute between the United Farm Workers (UFW) union and the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville has been partially resolved.

On June 18 church workers Ann Cass, Edna Cantu, Martha Sanchez, Rosario Vaello and Bonifacio Quintero were fired in a case of what they and hundreds of parishioners characterized as an act of union-busting. While at least one of the two churches involved cited a plan to use volunteers in place of salaried employees, many of the local faithful accused Bishop Raymundo Pena of having been responsible for the firings.

The bishop openly opposed contracts that five parishes in his diocese had signed with the UFW in 2002, and the firings, many believe, were an effort on his part to break the contracts. He had already declared them “invalid in church law.”

Ironically, and, perhaps in a case of telling defensiveness, Pena claims he supports organized labor and was a friend of Cesar Chavez, the late founder of the UFW.

The unionization drive was the result of Bishop Pena’s abolishing a pension plan for the 1,100 paid lay workers, a decision that Rebecca Flores, Texas state director of the UFW, says was “for no reason. There was no reason to do it.”

After the diocese offered an ambivalently received alternative plan, the five parishes signed union contracts with the UFW, which established pension plans and – for the first time – grievance procedures.

After two months of court-mandated mediation, the parties have arrived at an agreement which includes the implementation of a UFW contract with two of the churches, back pay and lost medical benefits, a diocese-wide exhaustive grievance procedure to protect workers from arbitrary termination, and a provision that prevents pastors from terminating workers within 90 days of having assumed their offices.

Resolution is still being sought regarding the three remaining union contracts signed in 2002.

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