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Teachers appeal for fair deal in St. Louis


On most workdays, my plaid-skirted parochial school past stays in the closet. My employer is a St. Louis alternative newspaper famous for raising the blood pressure of conservatives. We question the assumptions of secular power and keep our skirts (rarely plaid) clean of most religious issues, fancying it possible to cleave church from state even in messy social issues.

That pattern changed earlier this year when grade-school teachers in the St. Louis archdiocese took up picket signs for the right to unionize. They wanted better pay and benefits (salaries start at $16,890 and seldom reach the vaulted $32,530 ceiling). They also wanted an objective grievance policy and more say about their working conditions. None of this seemed unreasonable.

But panicky archdiocesan officials, not least Archbishop Justin Rigali, were refusing blankly. They offered what to outsiders must have seemed like a Catholic Zen koan. Although the archdiocese issues centralized salary guidelines and personnel policies, and pastors feel bound to obey them, the elementary school system was not centralized, archdiocesan officials said, and therefore the teachers could not do collective bargaining.

This issue wasn't religion, my editor reasoned, it was the workplace rights of 2,400 teachers responsible for shaping the minds of 44,282 children in Missouri's oldest, largest and probably most trusted school system. Furthermore, the problem had national scope: Because of divisions of church and state, Catholic school teachers did not have recourse to the National Labor Relations Board, so they were uniquely vulnerable. Look into it.

And so, on Holy Thursday morning, I found myself standing on the gray stone steps of the New Cathedral, notebook poised. Below on the sidewalk, the picketers -- some holding babies or their husband's hand -- walked a long loop. Above, school kids in zigzag lines waited to enter the cathedral. (One of their teachers assured me she'd be marching, too, except she had to get her students to the Chrism Mass.) Near the heavy wooden doors, I saw what looked to be a monsignor. Taking a deep breath, I approached him.

And lost my nerve. Instead of asking tough questions about the teachers' rights, I asked him why the kids were there. They were this year's confirmation class, he told me, and we chatted about changes in the sacrament since my own school days. I felt like a prisoner with the Stockholm syndrome, way too eager to impress the authorities.

Back at my desk, the questions came more readily: Why had the archbishop refused to meet with the teachers? Why had the education board refused their proposal for task forces to study this issue? Why had the archdiocesan newspaper refused to sell them an ad?

How could collective bargaining be structurally impossible when, according to Rita Schwartz of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers, some 35 to 40 U.S. dioceses already recognize some form of collective bargaining? How did a wage of $16,890 for a single parent of three reconcile with the 1996 U.S. Bishops' Pastoral Letter on the Economy, which urged the church to practice the same social justice it preaches?

Catholic elementary school teachers inherited their "vocation" from nuns vowed to poverty and 1950s wives looking to supplement their husband's salary and be home in time to fix supper. Today, many of those teachers are single, divorced, widowed or supporting children. "My God -- excuse my language -- isn't teaching enough of a sacrifice?" one of them asked me. "I feel like a church mouse, scuttling around in a dark church squeaking, and the friar, out of the kindness of his heart, throws a crumb.

"We are not mice. We are humans. And we teach the future Catholics of this community."

As the chronology unfolded, I began to understand the anger burning in the teachers' voices. Last spring, they organized the Association of Catholic Elementary Educators, which soon had more than 950 members. In November, the teachers' association proposed two archdiocesan task forces, one to study the possibility of collective bargaining, the other to study the possibility of funding increased salaries and benefits. After maneuvers worthy of a corporate boardroom, the archdiocese informed them that collective bargaining would not be included in any task force's discussion.

The teachers rolled up their sleeves.

They picketed the archbishop's residence. They demonstrated (before service, never during, they kept reminding me. "We're Catholic too!") They asked parishioners to put their annual development appeal contributions in escrow until the archdiocese recognized their association. They even affiliated with the Carpenters and Joiners union, part of the AFL-CIO. But through it all, they kept asking for a meeting with Rigali for an open discussion of the issues, an honest attempt at reconciliation.

The archdiocese's response was simple: Collective bargaining was structurally impossible; financial times were tough; and improving the teachers' salaries and benefits would necessitate closing schools and raising tuition costs. Eventually, they offered the association two representative seats on a special commission to study the issue. Collective bargaining was off the table, so the association refused. Case closed.

Trying to understand how educated people of goodwill who shared a common faith and common goals could reach such an impasse, I found myself listing the flashpoints:

First, years of feeling unappreciated, unheard, not included in any real decision-making.

Second, the superior working conditions of the archdiocesan high school teachers, whose union had been acknowledged three decades ago and whose salaries were higher.

Third, the unfortunate, bumbling explanation that those superior conditions were necessary to attract and keep male teachers for the coed high schools. (Nearly all the elementary teachers are female).

Some of this, I must admit, was exhilarating. I was hearing pure feminist rage from women who, in my own school days, had hushed us nervously and risen (almost genuflecting in reflex) whenever the pastor entered the room. "Times have changed," veteran teacher Anita Schumaker agreed. "You've got women now that are sick of being told what to do by these men and not even consulted. We are not the wimpy little Catholic schoolteachers we used to be."

Unfortunately, the hierarchy was still the hierarchy. Communication followed gravity, falling vertically.

Priests of various religious orders wouldn't comment; it wasn't fair for them to speak on a diocesan matter. Nuns wouldn't talk; as former parochial school teachers, they didn't feel they should get involved. Archdiocesan priests wouldn't comment; they had vowed obedience to the archbishop. Priests called Robin Heimos, president of the teachers' association -- anonymously, however -- whispering their support.

"This is a manifestation of a much more fundamental shift," murmured one priest -- "the laity taking their proper place, finding their voice in the church." Unfortunately, he added, "there is no overall structure yet" that allows a graceful sharing of power and ideas.

Habits of thinking die hard. When I turned in the story, my editor asked why on earth some flexible, custom-designed collective bargaining arrangement couldn't be made. I tried to explain the hierarchy, the tradition, the order and coherence that are the church's greatest strengths and weaknesses. "These are parish schools," I repeated patiently. "A Roman Catholic pastor rules his parish -- and obeys his archbishop."

Well, couldn't designated pastors serve with archdiocesan officials on a collective bargaining team? I opened my mouth for an answer and realized I had none. I'd never even considered such a thing. Catholicism is not a team sport.

In some dioceses, even the teachers think they can't organize, notes Schwartz of the Catholic teachers' organization, who has been working on this issue for 30 years. "I explain to them that indeed, the Catholic church champions the right to organize" -- she rattles off papal encyclicals, episcopal documents and canon law. "But in terms of federal and state law, we still leave our civil rights at the schoolhouse door."

Last month, things looked pretty bleak. But last week, I called association president Heimos for an update. The story hasn't ended, but the impasse has: Rigali finally met with Heimos and 13 other teachers. The association agreed to send its president and vice president to the commission after all. And when they arrived at the first meeting, they were handed an agenda that included collective bargaining.

After that Holy Thursday demonstration, I saw our Jewish photographer looking wistfully at the cathedral doors. "I've never been inside," she confided. "It's funny, I always visit cathedrals when I travel, but here ... I never knew if it would be okay." I promised it would be and guided her inside. She craned her neck at the mosaics, whispering awed comments until a blare of trumpets signaled the start of the service. For what seemed an eternity, all the priests of the archdiocese, robed in white, processed straight-backed and reverent down the long aisle. Hearing Jen catch her breath, I felt absurdly proud to be rooted in such an ordered, certain tradition.

Its greatest strength; its greatest weakness.

Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 1997