By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) – A group of teachers in New York Catholic schools voted April 1 to go on strike during the pope's visit to New York.
The teachers, part of the Lay Faculty Association, a union which represents 450 teachers at 10 high schools, voted 132-20 in favor of the strike. The union has been without a contract since last August.
The main issues for the teachers are salaries, health insurance payments and pension plans.
The teachers' group is seeking an increase in pay for top-tier teachers, from $53,000 to $60,000. The New York Archdiocese has proposed a final offer of $58,225, an increase of nearly $8,000 more than the current top-tier salary, but the union has rejected the offer.
Members also want an increase in the pension plan and no increase in the premiums they pay for health insurance.
Henry Kielkucki, business manager for the Lay Faculty Association, said April 3 that after the vote was announced archdiocesan officials said they would meet with union representatives April 10.
"I never thought it would come to this," Kielkucki said about the proposed strike. He also said he is "not at all optimistic" that the next meeting with archdiocesan officials, coming about a week before the pope's visit, will resolve the union's issues.
Kielkucki said teachers are prepared to strike April 14-16. The New York Archdiocese has already planned to close the Catholic schools Thursday and Friday of that week, April 17 and 18, for the pope's visit. The pope arrives in Washington April 15 and will be in New York April 18-20.
In a prepared statement he read to reporters March 31, Kielkucki said the proposed strike was not a "protest against the Holy Father, but rather it is to let the Catholic community know that we have a problem in New York."
Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York, told media outlets in New York the archdiocese has been fair in its negotiations with the teachers. He also said it has offered to raise teachers' salaries between 17 and 19.5 percent over three years but that the union rejected the offer.
On the issue of health care, the teachers' union currently contributes between 5.9 percent and 7.6 percent of their insurance, an amount the archdiocese wants gradually increased to 10 percent, similar to what other archdiocesan employees pay.
Another New York Catholic school teacher union, the Federation of Catholic Teachers, staged a sickout April 3 at 10 schools and accused the New York Archdiocese of unfair labor practices.
The Federation of Catholic Teachers represents about 3,300 Catholic elementary school teachers. Its members have been without a contract since September. They are asking for salary increases, claiming their teachers are paid half the salaries of local public school teachers, but their primary contention is over health coverage.
Union members said that when they were asked to increase their medical coverage costs they requested information from the New York Archdiocese about other health care plans they could use but said they never received this information.
Zwilling told The Associated Press that the archdiocese had given the union all the data it requested.
Meanwhile, in the Diocese of Scranton, Pa., teachers at Catholic schools there have staged sickouts, participated in prayer vigils and pickets during March in response to Scranton Bishop Joseph F. Martino's announcement in January that he would no longer recognize the Scranton Diocese Association of Catholic Teachers. The union has represented Scranton's Catholic teachers for 30 years.
A statement from the Scranton Diocese released in mid-March said the tactics of Catholic school teachers, particularly through sickouts, "do harm to students and Catholic education."
Bishop Martino said in January that instead of recognizing the union, the diocese was forming an employee relations program for teachers and support staff including aides, administrators, office staff, cafeteria staff and maintenance personnel.
The Scranton teachers' union is appealing Bishop Martino's decision not to recognize it to the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education.
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