Labor Encyclicals Should Apply to Church Workers

Article excerpt

For more than a century, popes have preached to the world the wisdom of collective bargaining. But for decades, those ringing affirmations of the right of workers to organize have been muffled in U.S. chancery offices.

The latest example of church doublespeak on labor issues comes from Bishop James T. McHugh of the Camden, N.J., diocese, where elementary school teachers start at a whopping $16,700 a year. The pay ranges to $22,600 a year, but only after someone has taught in the schools for at least 20 years (see story, page 3).

Ironically, McHugh was all over the news last week as the rather aggressive American defender of Vatican teaching on sexuality and abortion during the U.N. Conference on Population and Development. Back home, however, the less sexy teachings on workers' rights were being trampled by McHugh himself.

The bishop wants elementary school teachers to sign what he is calling a "minimum standards" agreement -- a document that would effectively nullify any future labor agreement by insisting that "nothing shall be deemed to limit or restrict in any way" a parish's control over all aspects of the elementary school, including suspensions and disciplinary action against teachers.

In other words, the teachers are free to organize as long as they sign away any power that might come with organizing.

Officials in the neighboring Philadelphia archdiocese tried to coerce teachers into signing a similar agreement, but it was rejected.

In Camden, elementary school teachers are now suing the diocese after attempting to organize for more than a year.

High school teachers there went out on strike.

Camden is just the latest example of how shoddy treatment of church workers takes place against a back-drop of inspiring teachings about workers' rights.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical Rerum Novarum ("New Things"), which gave the church's blessing to the surging labor movements of industrial nations.

In decades following, bishops and theologians spoke of the right as well as the duty to organize. In his first encyclical on social matters, Pope John Paul II commended unionism as "an indispensable element of social life." The pope has returned to the theme many times since his 1981 letter, Laborem Exercens ("On Human Work").

More recently, the U. …