WASHINGTON — According to a new report by the Catholic Labor Network, about 500 Catholic workplaces in the country are unionized.
That number represents a relatively low share of the total number of Catholic institutions in America, since there are some 6,800 schools, 630 hospitals and more than 240 colleges and universities, but it still indicates a significant footprint for organized labor within the Church’s entities.
The vast majority of unionized workers are in three distinct fields: health care, K-12 education and college education, with a smaller cluster in social services and other service professions.
“Catholic social teaching endorses the right of workers to form labor unions and calls upon labor and management to establish cooperative relationships to advance their craft and the common good,” said Clayton Sinyai, the report’s author, in “The ‘Gaudium et Spes’ Labor Report,” issued in mid-August to be available in time for Labor Day, which this year is Sept. 5.
“When Catholic institutions and trade unions establish mutually rewarding partnerships, they exercise a true magisterium in deed as well as in word,” Sinyai added.
Representatives of both labor and management in the education sphere interviewed by Catholic News Service said the relationship has been beneficial.
Pennsylvania’s two largest teachers’ unions are in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh public school systems. But ranking third and fourth in the state are the high school teachers in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the parochial school teachers in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
“What we’ve established in Pittsburgh is just basically a relationship between the teacher federation and the school’s office and the bishop’s office,” said Brian Klisavage, president of the Federation of Pittsburgh Diocesan Teachers, part of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers, or NACST.
Klisavage said the relationship was first established in the 1970s. “Since then every bishop, including Bishop (David A.) Zubik, and every union president since has had this mutual respect,” he added.
The relationship “works for both sides.” Klisavage told CNS. “And I think the people at the diocese would agree with that. It helps the schools with budgeting. It helps us that we don’t have to fight for our benefits or pension every one or two years,” he added, noting that some teachers in the public school districts “have to deal with all that uncertainty.”
In Philadelphia, though, contracts have been an annual deal precisely because of health care, said Rita Schwartz, president of the Association of Catholic Teachers, another NACST affiliate representing teachers in 17 high schools in the archdiocese.
“Medical insurance is so quixotic right now,” Schwartz said, “the best we can (do) for the teachers right now is on a year-to-year basis under the Affordable Care Act.”
“We want to offer the best medical plan possible, but in the current climate, we’ve offered a lot of changes to keep costs low, but with the Affordable Care Act it’s been more difficult to do,” said Jason Budd, Philadelphia archdiocesan deputy secretary for education.
“Rita’s been wonderful in that process,” Budd added. “We’ve done some work in how we handle the prescription plans and we’ve sharpened our pencils to the best of our ability to come up with on the-spot solutions.”
“Typically, we’d like to get to a three-year contract,” he said. “In the past, the sticking point was the salary. Now the sticking point is the medical.”
The Philadelphia high school teachers have been organized for 50 years, and recognized by the archdiocese for 48. “We’ve had ups and downs. We’ve had some Camelot times and we’ve had some very bad times,” Schwartz said.
Fertile organizing ground has been tilled in recent years with adjunct professors at colleges.
Two Catholic colleges in Washington, Georgetown University and Trinity Washington University, are represented by Local 500 of the Service Employees International Union. The local also represents adjunct professors at George Washington University and American University in Washington.
There are about 600 adjuncts at Georgetown and its continuing education program; they got their first contract in 2012. Adjuncts at the university’s law, medical and nursing schools are not represented.
“We didn’t have a signed neutrality document, but they agreed not to fight the union. They followed their just employment policy. They sent some informational emails and that was about it,” said Anne McLeer, director of Local 500’s higher education program.
“Negotiations were very cordial, collaborative,” she said. “They wanted to come to an agreement. That doesn’t mean it gives us everything we wanted, but they were very productive.”
McLeer is at the bargaining table at Trinity to negotiate a first contract for the school’s 300 adjunct professors. Adjuncts at Trinity and elsewhere “didn’t realize how many adjuncts there were and how the university relied on them, and how much money these universities saved,” McLeer said.
She estimated it at 4 to 5 percent of a typical college’s teaching budget, but 30 percent of its academic offerings.
“The academic job market has really changed since 1970, when 75 percent of the teaching faculty were full-time tenured faculty or tenure-track. In 2000 it had changed to where 50 percent of the faculty were part-time, paid by the course,” McLeer said. “Today, only 20 percent of faculty were on the tenure line.”
She added, “The majority of the people looking for a career in academia are contingent workers. No seniority, no office space, no advancement, their rate of pay is really low. They have no life in the university, no benefits.”
Of the members McLeer represents, she said, “They build and build and build and they sort of reach a tipping point.”