e-mail us
Employees unionize at four Texas parishes


Employees of four Catholic parishes in the diocese of Brownsville, Texas, have signed union contracts with their pastors in what is said to be the first instance in the United States of parish unionizing.

The parish employees are represented by United Farm Workers, which is providing them with a union pension plan and a five-year contract that provides for a grievance procedure in cases of disputes between the employer and an employee. The employees sought unionization following the termination of an overfunded diocesan pension plan and what the UFW described as a mass dismissal of parish staff at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in McAllen, Texas, by a newly assigned priest. Because churches do not pay unemployment taxes, fired staff cannot obtain unemployment benefits.

Ann Cass, a pastoral associate at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in McAllen, said she had contacted United Farm Workers following Bishop Raymundo Peña’s decision in 2000 to terminate a defined benefit pension plan and to offer a 403(b) plan in its place. While a 403(b) plan can be advantageous to younger workers, Cass said the defined benefit pension plan offers more benefits to older workers and to low-wage workers. Cass, 55, said under the old plan she would have received an annual pension of $10,500 upon retirement, while under the new plan she would receive only $3,030. Cass said the bishop’s accountant refused to consider offering alternatives to the new 403(b) plan, despite requests to do so.

Cass said she became further frustrated when she heard of mass layoffs at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

“Once I heard that all these people got fired for absolutely no reason at all, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We’re working to provide justice in the area, and we don’t even have it here in the church. The cook had been there for 30 years. She had no unemployment [compensation],” Cass said.

The decision to liquidate the overfunded defined benefit pension fund and pay out the proceeds also made some employees unhappy because payments were made based on the age of the worker rather than length of service. For instance, a 38-year-old worker who had worked for the diocese 13 years got $1,692 from the payout while a 65-year-old employee with 12 years’ service got $21,000, said United Farm Workers organizer Rebecca Flores. She added that a meeting with members of the chancery staff did not answer questions she and others had about why employees never received an annual report on the pension plan, and why and how the overfunding had occurred.

Bishop Peña was on vacation and could not be reached for comment, but Fr. Robert Maher, vicar general of the diocese, took issue with some of the comments that had surfaced in the media.

“The complaint that the media has reported here is that the laity wasn’t consulted,” Maher said. “That isn’t true. It was consultation with lay employees that led the bishop to decide on a new pension plan. The bishop acted on the best interests of employees, to give them a better plan with better retirement income than the old plan allowed.”

Maher said after speaking with the laity the bishop had consulted with eight experts about changing the plan. All independently assured him that the plan he eventually adopted was superior.

“I might add that the old pension plan closure did not spark any resentment or revolt that I heard of. All the upset came when employees discovered how little was the amount of benefits they had accumulated in their pension plan, and that’s what generated a lot of resentment. Those employees should realize how much more upset they would have been if the bishop had done nothing and they had discovered on the day of their retirement how little they would have had to live on,” Maher said.

The vicar general also said reports of a mass dismissal of parish staff at Our Lady of Perpetual Help were untrue. Two out of seven employees were dismissed, he said. "It’s a rush to judgment that an injustice occurred," Maher added.

Flores described the negotiations with the four pastors who signed union contracts on behalf of their parishes as “very amicable.” Contracts were signed with Holy Spirit Catholic Parish and St. Joseph the Worker in McAllen, St. Joseph the Worker in San Carlos, and Sacred Heart Catholic Parish in Hidalgo.

Fr. Jerry Frank, pastor at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, said he had signed the union contract willingly. “It was the only thing I could do to have a voice. I did it in order to protect our workers and hopefully open the way for other pastors and other parishes because I think our workers at this time in the diocese need protection,” Frank said.

Flores said early communication between the United Farm Workers and Peña, in which the bishop said employment issues should be handled between pastors and employees, suggested he was not opposed to the union contracts. However, after the four contracts were signed, Peña sent letters to all the pastors in the diocese saying no future contracts should be signed without his approval.

Cass pointed out there is a long history of unionization of Catholic teachers, hospital staff and cemetery workers.

“I think people understand that even though we work for the church we still have a right to be treated with fairness and justice,” Cass said. “The bishops themselves said the institutional church should be a model for the marketplace. That’s all we’re really asking. We want a say-so in decisions that are going to affect us.”

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, July 19, 2002