Teachers union says it will suspend strike while pope visits

WASHINGTON – One group of teachers in New York Catholic schools voted to call off a two-day strike April 8 after a negotiating session with the Association of Catholic Schools of the Archdiocese of New York.

A second group still planned to go ahead with a strike during Pope Benedict XVI’s April 18-20 visit to New York.

The Federation of Catholic Teachers, the first group, staged its strike – a sickout – on Friday, April 4, at 10 schools and on Monday, April 7, at eight schools.

Union officials had accused the archdiocese of unfair labor practices April 3. They said the teachers, who have been asked to increase what they have to pay for health insurance, did not receive information they requested from the archdiocese about other health care plans.

The union represents about 3,300 Catholic elementary schoolteachers. Its members have been without a contract since September. Although it is asking for salary increases, claiming its teachers are paid half the salaries of teachers at local public schools, it said its primary issue is health coverage.

Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York, told The Associated Press the archdiocese had given the union all the data it requested. According to a statement from the federation, another bargaining session between the union and the archdiocese was scheduled for April 11.

The second group of teachers, the Lay Faculty Association, was continuing with its plans for a strike during the pope’s visit. The union, which represents 450 teachers at 10 high schools, voted 132-20 April 1 in favor of the strike. The union has been without a contract since last August and its main issues are teachers’ salaries, health insurance premiums and pension plans.

The association is seeking an increase in pay for top-tier teachers, from $53,000 to $60,000. The New York Archdiocese has proposed a final offer of $58,225, an increase of nearly $8,000 more than the current top-tier salary, but the union has rejected the offer.

Members also want an increase in the pension plan and no increase in the premiums they pay for health insurance.

Henry Kielkucki, business manager for the Lay Faculty Association, told Catholic News Service April 3 that after the vote was announced archdiocesan officials said they would meet with union representatives April 10.

“I never thought it would come to this,” Mr. Kielkucki said about the planned strike. He also said he was “not at all optimistic” that the next meeting scheduled with archdiocesan officials would resolve the union’s issues.

Mr. Kielkucki said teachers were prepared to strike April 14-16. The New York Archdiocese has already planned to close the Catholic schools Thursday and Friday of that same week, April 17 and 18, for the pope’s visit. The pope arrives in New York April 18 after visiting Washington April 15-17.

In a prepared statement he read to reporters March 31, Kielkucki said the planned strike was not a “protest against the Holy Father, but rather it is to let the Catholic community know that we have a problem in New York.”

Mr. Zwilling has told media outlets in New York the archdiocese has been fair in its negotiations with the teachers. He also said it has offered to raise teachers’ salaries between 17 percent and 19.5 percent over three years but that the union rejected the offer.

On the issue of health care, members of the Lay Faculty Association currently contribute between 5.9 percent and 7.6 percent of teachers’ insurance premiums, an amount the archdiocese wants to gradually increase to 10 percent, similar to what other archdiocesan employees pay.

Meanwhile, in the Diocese of Scranton, Pa., teachers at Catholic schools there staged sickouts, participated in prayer vigils and pickets during March in response to Scranton Bishop Joseph F. Martino’s announcement in January that he would no longer recognize the Scranton Diocese Association of Catholic Teachers. The union has represented Scranton’s Catholic teachers for 30 years.

A statement from the Scranton Diocese released in mid-March said the tactics of the teachers, particularly the sickouts, “do harm to students and Catholic education.”

Bishop Martino said in January that instead of recognizing the union the diocese was forming an employee relations program for teachers and support staff including aides, administrators, office staff, cafeteria staff and maintenance personnel.

The Scranton teachers union has appealed Bishop Martino’s decision not to recognize it to the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.