Philadelphia Catholic high school teachers go on strike

Posted: September 07, 2011

More than 16,000 students who attend high schools operated by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia begin returning to school Wednesday, but their teachers will be on picket lines instead of in class.

For the first time since 2003, lay instructors at the 17 high schools are on strike after teachers voted Tuesday to reject the archdiocese's latest contract proposal, 589-60.

"It was the biggest rejection of a contract I have ever seen that I can remember," Paul Pedlow, a veteran English teacher at Archbishop Ryan, said after results of the secret ballot were announced Tuesday by the Association of Catholic Teachers, Local 1776.

Students who attend archdiocesan high schools in the five-county region are expected to report to school and follow their normal staggered schedules beginning Wednesday, according to the archdiocese. Incoming freshmen are set to begin school Wednesday at most schools.

The strike vote at a union meeting at Penns Landing Caterers on Columbus Boulevard came hours after the talks between the union and the archdiocese collapsed early Tuesday.

Association president Rita Schwartz said the union's executive team unanimously called for rejecting the proposed three-year agreement.

"It was job security. It wasn't money," she said.

Officials from the archdiocese expressed dismay.

Richard McCarron, secretary for the Office of Catholic Education, on Tuesday called the teachers' decision to strike "a sad day for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia." He added that the archdiocese's negotiating team hoped to resume talks as soon as Wednesday.

The union declined to return to the bargaining table Wednesday but said it hoped talks would resume later this week.

McCarron said his team was disappointed the union had rejected its latest set of proposals, including an average salary increase of 7.84 percent over three years.

But he said the talks this time focused less on economic issues and more on changing work conditions to reflect evolving educational needs, including provisions that would allow it to add part-time teachers.

"This is not a contract of the past. This is a contract for the future," McCarron told reporters.

Schwartz said union members were concerned about many proposed changes, especially those affecting job security and teachers' prospects for being rehired if the archdiocese closed or consolidated more high schools.

In the last three years, the number of archdiocesan high schools has shrunk from 20 in response to changing demographics and declining enrollment. Three years ago, there were 19,900 students enrolled.

Schwartz said she wanted parents and students to know that she hoped teachers would return to the classroom soon but said it was up to the archdiocese to come up with an offer that the 711 lay teachers in her union would accept.

"I will get these teachers back as quick as I can, but I have to have some cooperation from the archdiocese," she said.

Schwartz said the union would not interfere with Thursday's installation of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. But she said the association would hold a 1 p.m. rally that day a block away in front of the archdiocese's headquarters on North 17th Street.

Mary Rochford, superintendent of Catholic schools, said Tuesday that each of the high schools had enough nonunion staff, including administrators and members of religious orders, to oversee students this week while contract talks continue.

The first week of school, Rochford said, primarily is devoted to orientation, as students arrive in phases to obtain locker assignments, have photos taken for IDs, and attend assemblies.

Rochford said that at most schools, freshmen will report Wednesday, seniors Thursday, and sophomores and juniors Friday.

The archdiocese said earlier that talks collapsed when union negotiators walked away from the bargaining table.

In a statement, it said negotiations broke off with "significant issues not agreed upon or in some cases even discussed."

"The archdiocese made multiple concessions in our proposals and believes the contract offered to the teachers is equitable," the statement said. "It is our hope that our teachers 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."

Schwartz, however, characterized the archdiocese's position as "my way or the highway" and said her members would not relinquish rights they have had since the union's first contract was signed in 1968.

The association called the archdiocese's proposals anti-teacher and antiunion.

The two sides had been negotiating for more than five months to draft a three-year contract to replace the agreement that expired last Wednesday. They had been at odds over the archdiocese's desire to overhaul the contract to reflect what it sees as the altered educational landscape of the 21st century, and to give it greater flexibility and control over teaching assignments and scheduling.

The Office of Catholic Education last week rejected the union's request for an outside mediator to help resolve the dispute, saying "no mediator has ever been utilized to reach a contract settlement in the history of our negotiations dating back decades."

The typical Catholic high school teacher earned $50,550 in the last academic year and has been teaching for 20 years, Schwartz said.

A 2003 strike kept students out of archdiocesan high schools for six days.

Catholic high school tuition is $5,600 this academic year.

The labor dispute does not affect students who attend Catholic elementary schools, whose teachers are not unionized.


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

 

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