Bid to Unionize Pits Job Security Against Mission of Catholic School

Danielle Gillespie | Correspondent | Monday, August 04, 2003

Bid to Unionize Pits Job Security Against Mission of Catholic School

(CNSNews.com) -\b A private Catholic high school in Michigan could be the first of its kind in the state to see its teachers join an educational union. But if that does happen, it won't be without considerable debate between the teachers wanting more job security and school administrators fearing the school's religious rights will be infringed.

Some of the 42 teachers working at Brother Rice High School, an all-boys Catholic school with 650 students, are requesting an election to determine whether the school should join the Michigan Education Association (MEA).

"They contacted us and said they would be interested in learning more about the MEA, and they were interested in being represented," said David Crim, an organizing consultant with the Michigan Education Association.

Brother Rice High School head Edward Kowalchick said he's concerned the MEA would try to restrict the school from fulfilling its religious mission.

"What I know regarding the MEA is it tends to give direction that may not permit us to do what we need to do in our curriculum as far as our mission, as seen by (the Congregation of Christian Brothers) founder Edmund Ignatius Rice," Kowalchick said. The Congregation of Christian Brothers of Ireland founded the school in 1960.

Kowalchick said teaching the Catholic faith is "the uniqueness and essence of who we are," and the faith element is utilized in "every part of our education in the classroom, outside the classroom, in the curriculum and in club activities."

But Crim said the MEA has no plans of interfering with the high school's religious teachings.

"We have made it clear that our union understands that it's a Catholic school providing a faith-based education, and we have no intention of changing that," Crim said. "We only seek to represent them as employees."

The teachers were likely interested in the union in the first place, Kowalchik said, because of fear of salary cutbacks.

Enrollment at the high school has declined over the past few years, he said, and because the school's funding is tuition driven, Kowalchik said he proposed freezing salaries to keep jobs. "To the best of my knowledge that is the best way we can do it," he said, adding that if enrollment increased, the school would issue bonuses instead.

"I think [job security] was a real concern for people," Kowalchick said. But he added that he doesn't think the union is necessarily the best way to solve the problem. "A union supposedly will tell you, you don't have to worry, but these are tough times for everyone," he said.

Crim said teachers at Brother Rice currently have the status of at-will employees, "who can be terminated or disciplined at any time without cause as non-union employees." Union representation, he said, would place the teachers in the position where "they would have just cause for discipline or termination." By joining the MEA, teachers would be ensured a court hearing before potential termination, according to Crim.

The union would also give teachers the chance to participate in collective bargaining. They would have "a say in their wages, benefits and working conditions," Crim said.

But Kowalchick said the high school is not opposed to the idea of negotiating contracts with the teachers.

"We have literally looked at doing that and are in the process of doing that," he said. "It's an open field at this time."

While the high school is not the first Catholic school to think about unionizing, Kowalchick said history shows it's uncommon.

"Catholic schools have had the opportunity to implement their teaching throughout the curriculum and that's why the Catholic school systems do not in general have unions," he said.

But Crim said the Catholic Church has actually supported the idea of its U.S. employees unionizing. In a 1986 pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All," issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, "the archbishops of the United States strongly supported employees of Catholic institutions and their rights to organize," Crim said.

"The position the school is taking does not conform to the beliefs and statements of the Catholic Church nor does it fit with case law from all around the country where Catholic schools have been allowed to organize," Crim said.

Kowalchick said he doesn't dispute the fact that the Catholic Church supports the right of employees to organize, but he's concerned with how much jurisdiction the MEA would exercise at the school.

"The concept of a community communicating and even if you want to use the term union -- I am not against that as the church is not against that," Kowalchick said. "It's just who is dictating? Or who is empowered? And how much empowerment is there?"

The Michigan Employment Relations Commission, the government agency that resolves labor disputes, is expected to rule before the end of the year on whether to allow an election that would enable teachers at Brother Rice High School turn thumbs up or down on the union.

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