Catholic Church not practicing what it preaches on labor rights

NEWBURGH, N.Y. – When John Feder, a 42-year Catholic school teacher in New York’s Hudson Valley, and the longtime president of Laborers Local 255, walked in the door of his school one day, he got the boom lowered on him.

The school was one of four that had decertified the union, under pressure from the archdiocese of New York.  And after it did, Feder, aged 64 and a year away from retirement, was “fired on the spot,” says union Business Manager Henry Kielkucki.

The decertification and Feder’s firing are symptoms of a trend among many top officials of Catholic institutions. Despite the church’s pro-union doctrines, embraced in Catholic Social Thought and articulated by popes for more than 120 years, those leaders often act just like corporate executives when it comes to labor relations. They do everything they can to frustrate workers’ rights and keep unions out.

That’s despite the fact that a disproportionate number of Catholics are union members. It’s also despite the fact the union movement is known for Catholic leaders. Among them: Former AFL-CIO Presidents John Sweeney and George Meany.

And it’s despite the fact that the church, in turn, from the late Monsignor George Higgins to the late Pope John Paul II, has had its own outspokenly pro-union leaders.

Yet, interviews show that the doctrines the Pope promulgates often do not filter downward to Catholic bishops or Catholic lay institutional leaders.  Some recent examples:

  • The archdiocese of St. Louis has fought a long battle to keep the lay teachers in its Catholic schools from organizing. Even after the teachers showed they wanted the Carpenters to represent them, the archdiocese refused to talk with their reps.
  • The archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul got rid of its 12-person Newspaper Guild unit at its newspaper: The church closed the paper. Some, not all, of the paper’s workers were merged into an expanded “communications office” under individual employment agreements, without rights to representation, or their contract.
  • After a long campaign and continued management intransigence, nurses at Chicago’s Resurrection Health Care hospital system gave up on getting majority signup recognition and settled for a National Labor Relations Board-run election. Management of the Catholic institution lobbied constantly against AFSCME Council 31’s drive, says veteran RN Margaret Nielsen. “They enlisted doctors to put the strong arm on the nurses,” in every place from elevators to operating rooms. The doctors said they would refuse to send patients to the hospital if nurses unionized, forcing it to close, she added. “A lot of people got freaked out.” AFSCME lost the election.
  • The New York archdiocese spun off its 10 Laborers-represented schools into an “independent” system, although they really weren’t, says Kielkucki. Budgets, working conditions, even pensions, went through the archdiocese. The decertification drive occurred. “This archdiocese is attempting to bust this union. They forced new votes” at all the schools, and decertification won at four, he added.

In the next twist, two Catholic schools within blocks of each other on Staten Island went in two different ways. Teachers at one decertified, those at the other didn’t. When teachers at the still-unionized school won raises and benefits in subsequent bargaining, the teachers at the other school changed their minds. So administrators at the still-unionized school are telling its teachers that next time they’ll get no raises, adds Kielkucki. The objective: Decertify the union at one and keep the other union-free.

  • John Garvey, President of the Catholic University of America, told the nation’s bishops in June that federal insistence that health insurers for religious institutions must cover contraceptive services for female workers wasn’t the government’s only intrusion on the Church’s sphere. Garvey added National Labor Relations Board rulings, too.

Garvey argued the government should “give the Church the freedom to simultaneously break U.S. labor law, and act contrary to its own teaching,” the Catholic Labor Network News reported. “It is hard to argue that having a union will undermine the Church’s mission when there is no basis for this position in magisterial teaching,” the publication commented.

The trend is not universal. A Catholic priest is a top workers’ rights official for Unite Here, for example. But there are too many instances where church leaders – both lay and ecclesiastical – ignore or defy the Church’s teachings on workers’ rights.

“When you bring up Catholic Social Thought at the bargaining table, they just shut you down,” the Laborers’ Kielkucki says of Catholic administrators. “They do not want to hear it and they don’t practice what they preach.”

That still doesn’t stop workers at Catholic institutions from trying to organize.

AFSCME reports a second group of 82 Resurrection Health Care workers, including social workers, will vote on union recognition in August, despite the nurses’ 159-98 loss at the Chicago hospital. “We’ll keep going,” vows Nielsen.

Photo: Workers protest union busting at Resurrection Health Care. PW


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.