"Sick out" challenges Scranton bishop over union recognition

A general "sick out" by teachers at Holy Redeemer High School in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania today was intended to send a message to Bishop Joseph F. Martino: Negotiate with the Scranton Diocese Association of Catholic Teachers, the union that has been representing Scranton Catholic teachers for 30 years. Despite pressure from teachers, parents, the media, and priests outside the diocese, Martino has remained largely silent after informing the union that it would be replaced by an "employee relations program" at the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year.

The bishop's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the matter. Indeed Martino has only communicated with local media and the broader community through the diocese's website.

“The decision has been made and that’s it,” said Mary Hummiston, a chemistry teacher at Holy Redeemer, describing the bishop’s attitude toward communicating with teachers.

In a letter from February 19th on the diocesan Web site, Martino explained that while Catholic social teaching defends the right of workers to unionize, it is his responsibility to weigh that right against the right of parents for affordable, Catholic education. Martino charged that SDACT was not acting in the best interest of the community but that "the primary goal of SDACT’s leaders has always been the acquisition of the greatest financial gains and other contractual concessions it could obtain from the parishes that formerly governed the schools. The recent conduct of these same leaders has only reinforced this conclusion about their overriding interest."

For their part SDACT leaders offered no apology for seeking better salaries and benefits for the diocese's Catholic teachers, noting they remained far from parity with area public school teachers, and challenged Martino's assertion that they did not have community interests at heart. On its blog, a SDACT official argued: "In its thirty-year history, the SDACT negotiated hundreds of contracts, each covering a gamut of employment terms and only two pages of which address salaries and fringe benefits, the rest being concerned with everyday working conditions, e.g. maternity leave, grievance processing and tenure."

Many parents have expressed firm solidarity with the teachers, respecting the need for teachers to collectively bargain the terms of their contracts. Parent and students alike have written letters to localpapers and posted comments of support on the Scranton Diocese Association of Catholic Teachers blog.

“You eliminate the union, you’re going to eliminate the attraction for teachers to teach in a Catholic environment,” said Tom Wall, a Pennsylvania State police officer and father of a high school student at Holy Redeemer. Wall is a member of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association Union and identified himself as pro-union in general.

Other parents without labor ties agreed with Wall’s sentiment.

“I’m not necessarily pro-union, but I’m definitely pro-teacher,” explained Mara Moga, a chemical engineer at Proctor & Gamble Co. and mother of two high school students at Holy Redeemer.

Teachers had discussed the possibility of a “sick out” at a meeting on Sunday after a speech by Reverend Patrick J. Sullivan, a priest and professor at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, who encouraged teachers to stand up to the bishop and affirmed their cause, according to teachers present at the meeting.

Sullivan wrote an open letter to Martino, which was reprinted in local newspapers on Wednesday, questioning the bishop’s reasoning and asking him to break his silence on the issue. He suggested Martino was being unwisely guided by a management consultant and said his "employee relations program" would function little better than a "company union," a labor-management strategy explicitly rejected by the tradition of Catholic social teaching.

Although it remained uncertain how long the “sick out” would last, one parent believed school would resume on Friday.

“We hear this coming through the kids,” Moga said, that “it’s just a '24-hour bug.’”—Matt Bigelow

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