Teachers’ strike closes Philadelphia Catholic high schools

Empty buses lined up along a street in Philadelphia Credit Uwe Kempa CC BY SA 20 CNA US Catholic News 9 13 11 Empty buses lined up along a street in Philadelphia. | Uwe Kempa (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia says there is “steady progress” in negotiations with the Catholic high school teachers’ union, but its high schools must shut down until an agreement is reached with the teachers’ union.

“We are willing to work around the clock to provide our students and school families with the best educational environment possible. Discussions over the past two days have been productive,” the archdiocese said on Sept. 13. “With the parties who best understand these issues remaining at the table and continuing to make progress, we can accomplish our goal.”

The contract under negotiation will affect about 800 lay teachers. There are 16,502 students at 17 archdiocesan high schools in the five-county Philadelphia region.

The schools had begun classes last week because students were mainly involved in orientation activities. However, school officials said reduced staffing could jeopardize student safety and the schools were closed on Wednesday, Sept. 14.

The Association of Catholic Teachers Local 1776 has raised concerns about proposed changes in working conditions and sick leave. It also raised worries about job security, noting that the archdiocese wants to bring in part-time teachers, which it says would compromise the position of full-time teachers.

Officials from the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Education, in a Sept. 12 press conference, compared these proposed teachers to “part-time contractors” who can teach a limited number of sessions and specialized electives, such as Mandarin Chinese.

Changes are necessary to update the Catholic educational system, they said. They charged that the union has opposed requiring an online grading management system on the grounds it is a change in working conditions.

The present contract considers parental complaints about teachers as illegitimate secondhand information, which archdiocese officials said hurts teacher accountability and requires administrators to interview students about complaints.

Face-to-face talks between the two sides occurred Sept. 12-13 even though the union has requested mediation twice.

Patrick J. Eiding, president of the Philadelphia Council of the AFL-CIO, has encouraged mediation in the dispute. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he would urge teachers to return to their classrooms under provisions of the contract that expired Aug. 31 while talks continued.

Officials with the archdiocese rejected the idea of mediation on the grounds that the Catholic schools are unique and the archdiocese and the teachers’ union know the schools’ needs better than an outside third party.
The union originally sought a 14.5 percent pay increase over a three-year period, while the archdiocese offered a 7.84 percent increase. The teachers’ demand has since come down.

The union previously struck over wages and benefits for about two weeks in 2003, when students missed six days of school. At the time, the archdiocese had 22 high schools serving 23,300 students.

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