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Lay teachers in Philadelphia on strike at 22 high schools

NCR Staff

Lay teachers at 22 Philadelphia Catholic high schools went on strike Sept. 3, walking out over wages, benefits and an amendment to archdiocesan policies concerning sexual misconduct and harassment.

According to an archdiocesan spokesperson, key issues for church leadership center on the Catholic identity of schools, as well as “maintaining an appropriate balance between wages and tuition.”

The union contends that a provision advanced by the archdiocese gives priests, brothers and religious preferential treatment if accused of improper sexual behavior or harassment. Under existing policy, when teachers are accused of such offenses, the matter is referred to the superintendent of schools.

Since the policy refers to “employees,” the union contends that it should encompass all teachers. The archdiocese is pressing for new language that would refer an accusation to the religious superior in the case of a priest, brother or sister.

“Our position is that the contract should treat lay and religious employees equally,” said Rita Schwartz, president of the Association of Catholic Teachers. “We may choose different lifestyles but we should receive the same treatment.”

Jay Devine, a spokesman for the diocese, said, “This language brings the contract in line with canon law. This isn’t a matter of preferential treatment.” Devine works for the Philadelphia public relations firm The Tierney Group.

On wages, the union is asking for a five to eight percent increase in each of the three years of the contract, along with reductions in the level of copayment in the teachers’ medical plan.

“We should practice what we preach in terms of a living wage,” Schwartz said.

“The problem is we don’t want to price ourselves out of the market on a tuition basis for parents,” Devine said. “We have to balance the needs of employees against the needs of parents.”

The archdiocese is pressing for contract language making attendance mandatory at religious functions held as part of teachers’ in-service days. It also wants to resist providing compensatory time to faculty who supervise in-school religious events. “We feel these issues are key to the Catholic character of our schools,” Devine said.

A key issue for the union concerns a proposed provision guaranteeing that if the archdiocese sells a school, the new owners would be obligated to honor the remaining life of the contract.

“Our teachers are very concerned about this because of what happened in Rockville Centre,” Schwartz said. In that New York diocese, Schwartz said, two high schools whose teachers belonged to the Brooklyn Catholic teachers’ union were sold to religious communities. All the teachers at both schools were fired by the new owners, with some hired back later.

Devine claimed the archdiocese lacked the authority to agree to such a provision. “If a school is sold, it’s outside our system,” Devine said. “We can’t place constraints on the new owners.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 12, 1997