Archbishop Chaput may intervene in Philadelphia teacher strike

Cardinal Justin Rigali and Archbishop-designate Charles Chaput in Philadelphia's chancery on July 19, 2011
Cardinal Justin Rigali and Archbishop-designate Charles Chaput in Philadelphia's chancery on July 19, 2011

.- Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput may become involved in ending a Catholic high school teacher's strike, though the archdiocese says he will not take any action until after his installation.

“I'm not averse at all to becoming involved personally, in a direct way, if that's good for our schools and good for our teachers," the recently-appointed archbishop told CBS 3 reporter Pat Ciarrocchi. Shortly after his arrival in the city, unionized Catholic high school teachers rejected a contract offer and announced they were on strike as of Sept. 6.

But the archdiocese's Associate Director of Communications Kenneth Gavin told CNA that if Archbishop Chaput does intervene, it would not occur until after his Sept. 8 installation. The teachers' union says it will not picket the installation – expected to draw up to 1,500 guests, including 700 cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, and seminarians – out of respect for the archbishop.

Archdiocesan Communications Specialist Meredith Wilson said that negotiations with the teachers would begin the next day, even though church officials “wanted them to start today.” The meetings are slated to last through Sept. 12, with a break on Saturday.

As of Sept. 6, the archdiocese and its unionized high school teachers had failed to agree not only on a future contract, but also on the matter of what had caused the strike.

The archdiocese said in a press release that the high school teachers' union “broke off negotiations early Tuesday morning after very little progress was made in weekend negotiating sessions.” The archdiocese said its representatives were “willing to talk until the last minute,” but found the union unwilling to proceed with further discussion.

In its statement, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia said it “made multiple concessions in our proposals and believes the contract offered to the teachers is equitable.” Archdiocesan officials hope the teachers' union “will recognize that a strike is not in their best interest and most certainly not in the best interest of our students and their families.”

But Rita Schwartz, president of the Association of Catholic Teachers Local 1776, gave the Pottstown Mercury newspaper a different account of what led to the strike. She said the teachers “did not walk away from the table” but “reached an impasse” where no further negotiations were possible.

“They handed us a proposal with 20 items on it at 4:30 (on Monday),” Schwartz told the Mercury. “We worked on it and gave it back to them and they said, ‘You have to accept all of it or none of it' … That’s not negotiating. That means we’re at an impasse and we can no longer negotiate.”

Both sides, however, acknowledge that the disagreement involves larger questions than the usual concerns over pay and benefits.

The union is primarily concerned for teachers' job security in the future. The archdiocese wants to hire part-time teachers, in response to what it describes as an “ever-changing 21st century educational landscape.” Full-time employees also feel uncertainty about what will happen to their jobs if the archdiocese continues to close or merge schools.

The union's 711 lay and religious instructors currently teach in 17 Catholic high schools with a combined student population of around 16,500. The current numbers represent a significant drop from nearly 20,000 pupils in 20 schools just three years ago.

The strike is not affecting Catholic elementary schools since those teachers are not unionized.

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