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Issue Date:  October 27, 2006

U.S. bishops, journalists locked in union battle


A long-simmering dispute between the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the journalists who staff the Catholic News Service went public last week as workers charged that the bishops’ conference is seeking to limit union bargaining prerogatives.

At issue is the union’s right to negotiate with the conference over potential changes to a defined-benefit pension plan. “The bishops want the unilateral right to change or terminate the pension plan,” Paul Reilly, representative of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, told NCR.

Catholic News Service is a self-supporting agency of the bishops’ conference. Its clients include approximately 170 Catholic publications in the United States, largely diocesan newspapers, and more than 70 news organizations around the world. NCR is a client of CNS.

More than a dozen CNS staffers participated in an Oct. 18 lunchtime picket outside the bishops’ northeast Washington headquarters. Nineteen CNS reporters, editors, photographers and clerical staff are members of the union bargaining group.

CNS staff has been working without a contract since January of this year. Under the terms of that contract and all previous agreements between the union and the bishops, said Reilly, changes that would negatively affect the union members’ pension plan would have to be negotiated prior to implementation.

“The parties appear to be deadlocked on the pension plan issue,” CNS editor in chief Tony Spence wrote in an Oct. 11 letter to the union. If changes to the pension plan are made during the term of a contract, Spence wrote, CNS is “willing to reopen the pension issue ... and negotiate about other retirement plans the Guild may want instead of the current pension plan.” But, he continued, “Catholic News Service will not agree [emphasis in original] ... to bargain about the change itself.” This policy is “in accordance with past practice,” said Spence.

“The financial tripod of negotiations is wages, health benefits, and pensions and they want us to completely give up the right to bargain on pensions,” said Jerry Filteau, vice chair of the bargaining unit and a 36-year CNS veteran.

Are the bishops trying to bust the union? “Sometimes we’ve had the feeling there might be some of that involved, but we’re not ready to say that is true,” said Filteau. “We need more proof then we’ve got so far.”

“Unionized employees have a basic right to bargain over key issues. ... It’s the most basic right any union has and it is unconscionable for the Catholic bishops to ask that it be given up. It’s just wrong,” said Reilly.

The failure to reach agreement with the union comes as the bishops prepare to consider substantial budget cuts and restructuring of conference operations (NCR, Oct. 6). Under that plan, 61 full-time positions at the bishops’ Washington headquarters, about one-quarter of the authorized work force, would be eliminated.

In addition, conference employees will pay higher health insurance premiums. Beginning next January, for example, family care health premiums will increase by 40 percent, to $2,800 annually, for those enrolled in the conference’s health plan. CNS is the only entity within the bishops’ conference that is unionized, though the conference’s non-union staff also participate in the defined-benefit pension plan.

The proposed cutbacks will be considered by the bishops at their annual meeting in Baltimore next month.

Meanwhile, the bishops’ conference and the union disagree about who is more eager to return to the negotiating table. Their last negotiating session was held in late August.

A statement released by a bishops’ conference spokesperson said the “negotiations are ongoing.” Said the statement, “We have urged the Guild to come to the bargaining table so that our mutual discussions can address and reach some resolution on all remaining issues in the contract.”

Union representative Reilly disputed that characterization. “One of the more frustrating parts of the whole process is CNS’s failure to bargain,” said Reilly. “They’ve canceled numerous sessions and refused to schedule sessions” that last more than two or three hours, he said.

The next negotiating session is scheduled for Oct. 30 and 31. A federal mediator is participating in the bargaining talks.

“The USCCB has long supported the rights of workers in this country and across the world,” said the bishops’ conference statement. “It continues that commitment.” Both CNS’s Spence and the bishops’ media relations office declined NCR’s request for an interview. A prepared statement said that “Catholic News Service believes that the give-and-take of contract discussions should remain between the parties.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2006

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