Next steps unclear in Scranton showdown over Catholic teacher's union
Though he has declared the matter closed, the standoff between Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino and a Catholic school teachers association seeking formal recognition from the diocese seems like to continues. After a March 28 "sick out," teachers began informational pickets around area Catholic Schools on March 29 but have not indicated what their next step might be. On Friday February 29, more than 200 of Holy Redeemer’s 857 students walked two laps around the school amid chants of “Go union” before returning to class. The students who participated in this small lesson in civic participation were rewarded with 2.5 hours of detention and apparently will be asked to complete a punishment assignment. For some perspective on Scranton's labor confrontation, U.S. Catholic contributor Matt Bigelow spoke with Penn State's Paul F. Clark. Clark is the director of Penn State's Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations.
USC: How would you describe the bishop's tactic in his letter? Specifically, Mike Milz, president of Sranton Diocese Association of Catholic Teachers (SDACT), has asserted that it is obvious from the tone and intent of his letter that Bishop Martino has been coached by a corporate "union-buster." What is your take on that claim?
PC: The courts have said that Congress did not intend the National Labor Relations Act to apply to the church, however that does not mean that the church cannot recognize and deal with untions if it decides to do so. The church has in fact done this in Scranton and many other places, ostensibly because it was putting into practice its teachings that people have a "basic right" to be represented by unions.
One could argue that the measure of an individual or organization's moral commitment is the degree it sticks to its convictions when those convications are challenged by difficult circumstances. The bishop now appears to be saying that the church supports the basic right to uninoze as long as it doesn't inconvenience the church. Using that logic even the coal and steel companies' opposition to unions in 1800s could be justified (although the bishop suggests unions where a good idea then).
I certainly don't know if the bishop is using an anti-union consultant in this situation, however, I think what the union is alluding to is that his arguments are very consistent with the arguments such a consultant would use. I do think that if the bishop were using church funds to hire anti-union consultants that would be unfortunate as these consultants do oppose, in every way, the church's teachings about unions.
The bishop seems to be saying that although workers have the right to unionize, he has a greater duty to protect Catholic education in the form of keeping tuition affordable. The bishop seems to be saying that the duty is jeopardized by the existence of a union. Is that an accurate depiction of his argument?
It seems to be a correct interpretation. But again, it is hard for the bishop to say that "employees should have a right to form a union except when it might make things difficult for us." Unions were created to give employees a voice in their workplace. And the system of industrial relations in this country clearly supports the notion that an independent union is the best way to give employees that voice. And the law that governs this system clearly indicates that a group formed by the employer to give employees a voice is a contradiction in terms and (for those covered by the act) is illegal. So the system the bishop is proposing is illegal for almost all other workers, and for good reasons.
Also, our political system long ago accepted the idea that checks and balances are important. As citizens we are concerned about the problems that occur when power and authority is concentrated in one person or party. One of the basic functions unions perform is to serve as a check on the unrestricted power of employers. If the bishop wanted to make the case as to why his teachers need a union, he is doing a very good job here by saying, "'I make the deicsions, I decide how and in what form you will have a choice."
SDACT's Milz has claimed that the Employee Relations Program would be illegal anywhere corporate labor laws apply.
I think he is correct. Section 8A2 of the NLRA basically outlaws unions or union-like programs formed or dominated by employers for the reasons I suggested above. In the old coal and steel days the bishop cites, they were called company unions. As a society we saw how problematic they were, and we outlawed them in 1935 for most workplaces. Unfortunately since the church isn't covered by the NLRA legally they can get away with what is illegal for most other workplaces.
Is this confrontation over union rights unique to the Scranton diocese?
The Catholic Church has been inconsistent on the issue of employee rights to organize. It has been very supportive in principle and often in practice. But sometimes it seems to have somewhat of a "do as I say, not as I do" attitude. In its own institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.) it has sometimes taken a harsh anti-union line, so what the bishop is doing is not unprecedented within the church.
Unfortunately, this leaves the church open to accusations of hypocrisy. Atheists have noticed. For more examples, just search for information on "Catholic Church union busting."