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In Camden, what is church teaching about labor?

Somewhere in the curriculum of Catholic high schools in Camden, N.J., we presume there is a course that covers the church's teachings on labor, on the dignity of work, on workers' right to organize and even strike for a living wage.

From Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum to John Paul II's Centessimus Annus, the church has spoken stirring words about the nature of work and workers' rights.

How perplexing, then, to hear the bishop of Camden, James McHugh, tell Catholic high school administrators they should feel free to hire replacement teachers or take on volunteers in order to keep the schools open (see brief, page 7, and NCR, Sept. 19).

The teachers in Camden's Catholic high schools have been striking for higher wages since Sept. 9.

A spokesman for McHugh told NCR that the intent of the diocese at the outset was not to hire permanent replacement workers, although such a move might be made if the strike drags on. "We haven't ruled anything out," said Fr. James Checchio, vice chancellor.

Whether the replacement workers are permanent or not, McHugh's actions are those of a strong-arm union-buster, the kind deplored by other church leaders who have spoken out in defense of workers.

Detroit's Cardinal Adam Maida, addressing the issues in a bitter strike against that city's two major newspapers, called the use of replacement workers "not an acceptable solution." The threat of using replacements, he said in 1995, "seems to undermine the legitimate purpose of the union and to destroy any possibility for collective bargaining."

Four years earlier, the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum ("On Human Work" is its English title), Bishop Frank J. Rodimer of Paterson, N.J., testified before the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Labor on behalf of the U.S. Catholic Conference. He was speaking in favor of a bill that would have outlawed the practice of hiring permanent replacement workers for workers who go on strike.

Rodimer noted the papal encyclicals on labor and one of the major documents of the Second Vatican Council, "The Church in the Modern World," which says, "Among the basic rights of the human person is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people. ... Included is the right of freely taking part in the activity of these unions without risk of reprisal."

He also quoted the earlier testimony of Cardinal John O'Connor of New York before the same subcommittee. "It is useless to speak glowingly in either legal or moral terms about the right to strike as a last resort or even the right to unionize" if either party bargains in bad faith or, "in the case of management, with the foreknowledge of being able to permanently replace workers who strike ..."

If the law allows employers to "offer permanent jobs to strikebreakers, strikers lose their jobs," Rodimer continued in his testimony. "It's that simple. If workers lose their jobs, what does it mean to have a right to strike? If there's no effective right to strike, what does it mean to have a right to organize?" Fair questions for the general society, and even more compelling for church leaders who find themselves in the position of managing lay employees.

McHugh's tactics are a direct affront to the right to collective bargaining, indeed undermining the essential function of a union.

The church cannot set up a double standard, making ringing arguments for the rights of workers in the secular realm and ignoring those principles internally.

And McHugh makes no claim that the workers are asking anything unreasonable. In fact, in a letter sent to high school teachers Sept. 9, the bishop wrote that the diocesan offer was made with "full awareness of your good work and the fact that you do make sacrifices to teach in our Catholic high schools."

No one doubts McHugh's claim that the diocese is strapped and that the high school system is operating at a serious deficit. But those are separate problems that hiring replacement workers will do little to solve.

Meanwhile, the larger question is what message McHugh will be sending the students in those classes on church social teaching. Does it apply only when it is convenient? Or only to those outside the fold? Will they learn that despite what the church says, when it comes to real dollars and cents, the boss has the right to use bullying tactics?

Honoring the spirit of the church's long-standing teaching on justice in the labor arena means allowing workers to negotiate free from the fear of intimidation or reprisals.

If the Camden teachers are already making sacrifices to work in Catholic schools, they at least should be able to negotiate a contract without the threat of losing their jobs.

National Catholic Reporter, September 26, 1997