Few groups in recent history have spoken out for labor rights as clearly as the Catholic church. Pope John Paul II said: “It is a fundamental right of workers to freely establish organizations to defend and promote their interests and to contribute in a responsible manner to the common task.”
When workers believe their rights are violated by Catholic organizations, their cry is “Practice what you preach!” They are often joined in this protest by prominent Catholics who express disappointment with hospitals, universities, and other organizations affiliated with their church.
“I am sorry to say that I have had quite a bit of experience with Catholic institutions that, unfortunately, do not practice what they preach,” said Rita Schwartz, president of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers. “Here, in Philadelphia, the Archdiocese has prevented elementary lay teachers and special education teachers from organizing for over 25 years. Since we are not covered by any labor law, there is no recourse.” [I left a message Sunday, Sept. 24, to get the Archdiocese’s response to the above.]
Janitors at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., have been involved in a dispute with their employer for about a year — a matter that has developed into a public relations competition involving street demonstrations and teach-ins on one side, captive-audience meetings and letters to students and parents on the other, and charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board by both.
A teach-in at CUA on Sept. 13 was attended by about a dozen janitors (out of a total of 80), as well as many dozen students, professors, and activists including Stephen Lerner, director of the Justice for Janitors campaign for the Service Employees International Union. Lerner showed a video of janitors picketing for better wages around the country, including in Los Angeles, where Cardinal Roger Mahony was shown supporting the janitors’ efforts.
Asked about Mahony recently, Emilie Junge, the SEIU’s organizer at CUA, called him “a hero to workers in California.” Mahony, who sits on the Board of Trustees of CUA, refused to comment on the dispute.
Junge was not at the teach-in. The administration allowed the event to take place on condition that she not come, because it has accused her of trespassing and banned her from the campus — a move the union calls discriminatory since the campus is open to the public. CUA spokesman Victor Nakas said no outside organizations are allowed there.
According to Nakas, CUA has behaved solely in the interests of its workers. Its wages are as high as at other area universities, and the SEIU last year involuntarily transferred workers from one local to another, he said. Because 30 percent of the workers signed a petition to decertify the union in September 1999, a vote should be held by secret ballot, Nakas said, and CUA will welcome either outcome. He blamed the union for blocking a vote by filing charges with the NLRB.
About 20 of the 80 CUA janitors are called “temps,” though they do the same work and have the same lack of job security as the other janitors. Their starting pay is $6.15 per hour with no benefits. Most of the “regular” janitors make $8.18 per hour regardless of years of service, and have to pay between $82 and $320 per month for health insurance. Junge said this is much lower compensation than at several other area universities organized by the SEIU. Custodian Douglas Baker said a supervisor told him to “leave the union alone.” He said he has to pay CUA $200 per year for parking while he works.
Orrin Baird, a lawyer for the SEIU, said a merger of two locals was proposed but never happened, although Local 14 did appoint the president of Local 82 as its bargaining representative and CUA refused to deal with her. Baird said the NLRB has thrown out the administration’s charge regarding involuntary transfers. According to Junge, “the old leadership of the union (which has since been removed) contributed to the confusion by telling the university there was a merger (unbeknownst to us).”
According to Baird, an NLRB investigation found that workers signed a decertification petition believing it would only stop their dues. Baird said the Aug. 24 issue of the CUA newspaper quotes Nakas as saying “the university withdrew recognition because of requests from workers that dues no longer be taken out of their checks.”
SEIU organizers said they have filed charges with the NLRB disputing the decertification petition and claiming CUA has refused to bargain with a recognized union, conducted surveillance of workers talking to union representatives on a public sidewalk, videotaped workers marching in protest, surrounded workers with security guards, and threatened to terminate workers. Baird said workers have been prohibited from wearing union buttons, a charge Nakas denied. He also denied any intimidation of workers.
At the teach-in, custodian Virginia Willis said many workers are scared. However, she held up a poster with the signatures of 60 janitors supporting the union. “We have listened to your side every day and maybe two times a month,” she told administrators. “Let the SEIU come in.”
Craig Parker, general counsel for CUA, spoke as well, and was surprised when a former professor of his, Roger Hartley, got up to reply. Hartley said the union had been recognized for about 14 years, and that an employer breaks federal law when it withdraws recognition unless a majority of workers don’t want the union. Hartley said the NLRB case, “Dresser Industries,” [need to look this up] established that 30 percent wanting a decertification vote does not equal a majority not wanting a union. He said it takes two years to have an election, and the SEIU is not obliged to.
Hartley said there are ways, including a card check, to make sure a majority supports a union. If the administration “morally wanted to recognize this union,” he said, “there is nothing in federal law to prevent it.”