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Camden teachers' strike heats up; settlement in Philly

NCR Staff

More than 200 lay teachers at eight Catholic high schools in the Camden, N.J., diocese went on strike Sept. 9, pressing for salary increases that, in percentage terms, are about twice as high as those offered by the diocese. Across the Delaware River in the Philadelphia archdiocese, a settlement has been reached in the teachers' strike that began Sept. 3.

In a move immediately denounced as "union-busting" by the South Jersey Catholic School Teachers Organization, Bishop James McHugh of Camden in a news conference on Sept. 11 implored teachers to return to work and, if they did not, authorized principals to use "substitutes and qualified volunteers" to keep schools open.

The vice-chancellor of the Camden diocese, Fr. James Checchio, told NCR that these new teachers would not permanently take the place of those on strike, although hiring permanent replacements could happen if the strike drags on. "We haven't ruled anything out," he said.

"The right of workers to strike is designed to force the opposition to come to the table to negotiate and resolve differences," said union president Bill Blumenstein, "not to continue business as usual by bringing in scabs.

"This is absolutely a gross violation of church teaching on the rights of workers," he said.

The eight high schools are attempting to stay open using administrators, religious teachers and lay teachers who have crossed picket lines. Checchio claims that three schools have over two-thirds of faculty spots filled in this way.

In his news conference, McHugh also repeated claims that the diocese is hard-pressed to meet expenses and has no new funds to increase salaries. Blumenstein rejected that claim. "If that's the case, let [McHugh] open the books and be accountable for how the funds are used," he said.

About 950 lay high school teachers had walked out in Philadelphia over salary issues and contract provisions related to the "Catholic identity" of archdiocesan schools. Agreement between the two sides was reached late on Sept. 10, and the teachers' vote to ratify the new contract the following day allowed classes to resume Sept. 14.

Dollars-and-cents issues had separated the Association of Catholic Teachers and the archdiocese, as the union had proposed increases slightly above $2,000 each year for three years, while church officials offered raises in the range of $1,500 to $1,700. Details of the settlement were not available at press time, but union officials said there was movement on both sides.

Unlike the Camden strike, noneconomic issues played a role in Philadelphia. Disputes developed over an archdiocesan proposal to make attendance at religious services mandatory and over a clause that would make "public scandal" grounds for dismissal of a teacher.

Union hackles were raised when an archdiocesan attorney suggested that "scandal" might include a male teacher being seen at a restaurant several evenings with a woman who was not his wife.

In a news release dated Sept. 8, the union argued that such behavior could have a variety of causes, such as a teacher taking a class and meeting with another student to go over a project. Church spokesperson Jay Devine told NCR that the attorney's illustration was "unfortunate." Devine claimed that the public scandal clause is a standard item in contracts in Pennsylvania dioceses and has never been employed in the way the attorney described.

It was unclear how this issue was resolved, although Devine had earlier suggested that a memorandum of understanding between the two sides might be employed in place of the controversial clause.

In other developments in Camden, Dave Coglan, Catholic schools superintendent, has refused an offer of binding arbitration, saying in a letter to the union that "the diocese can never turn over its educational mission nor fiscal responsibility to a third party such as a state agency."

Arbitration was employed to settle teachers' strikes in Camden in 1985 and again in 1991, leaving the union wondering why it was out of bounds now. Checchio said church leaders felt it would be "dishonest" to go into arbitration since there was nothing to negotiate. "We feel we've done as much as we can," he said.

The union has proposed annual pay increases for teachers of 6.5 and 6.75 percent over three years, while the diocese is offering increases of 3 and 3.5 percent. Compounded over the life of the contract, the union's proposal amounts to a 21.65 percent increase, while the diocese has offered 10.6 percent.

The two sides have disagreed publicly over the impact of the union's proposals on tuition. Checchio said union proposals would cost parents an additional $355 per year, while the union contends the impact would only be $125 per year.

"I don't know where they're coming up with these figures," Checchio said. "I doubt they keep financial records for every high school like our accounting office does, which is where our projection comes from." Tuition presently is $3,100 per year at each of the eight high schools.

"It doesn't take a genius" to grasp that the diocesan figures are misleading, Blumenstein said. "If you multiply $355 a year by 4,500 students, then divide that amount by the 255 teachers we represent, it comes to more than $7,000 per teacher -- a 22 percent increase [per year] in our average salary," Blumenstein said. "That's patently absurd, and not at all what we're suggesting," he said.

Checchio contended that the diocese is already strapped and simply doesn't have the money to fund the union's proposals. "Right now the diocese is providing a $1.25 million subsidy to these schools, and we're pushed to the limit," Checchio said. "If we go up much more, we'll be pricing parents out of our market. There are parents right now who would like to send their kids to Catholic schools but can't afford it," Checchio said.

"Shame on them," Blumenstein said in reference to the diocesan officials. "Here's the Catholic church, in the vanguard of the vouchers movement, asking for taxpayer dollars for our schools, and they won't go to the Catholic community to ask for support? It's hypocritical," he said.

Medical benefits also figure in the Camden dispute. The union has proposed a new health plan for teachers that would save the diocese 25 percent. The diocese, wishing to maintain a single plan for all employees, has rejected the offer.

The Camden diocese's efforts to keep schools open using replacements and modified schedules brought derision from Blumenstein. "It's an absolute joke," he said. "They have groups of more than 100 kids in an auditorium, supposedly teaching them religion or English, and they're calling it education. At a minimum, parents should demand a refund. It's fraud."

No negotiations were scheduled between the two sides as NCR went to press. Checchio said negotiations could resume only after movement on salaries from the union. "We're ready to negotiate, but they have to demonstrate some willingness," he said. "In a spirit of fiscal responsibility, we simply don't have the money they're asking for."

Despite the diocese's efforts to keep schools open, Blumenstein vowed the union would fight on. "I assure you that the resolve of the teachers on the line is stronger than ever today," he said. "Our members are outraged by Bishop McHugh's union-busting activities."

In Philadelphia, the two sides were meeting daily since the strike began, although archdiocesan officials insisted on beginning negotiating sessions in the afternoon, which union officials saw as unnecessarily protracting the strike.

Aside from the scandal clause, the other noneconomic issue that had blocked agreement was the archdiocese's insistence that attendance at religious events on days set aside for faculty in-services be mandatory for all teachers. "We believe that a Catholic school is more than informational. It's also formational," Devine said. "For that to happen, teachers need to take part in religious services."

Neither side was able to comment prior to press time on how the dispute over the proposed requirement was settled.

National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 1997