Catholic Church Workers Battle for Right to Unionize
SHEILAH KAST, host:
Unionized workers at five Catholic parishes in south Texas say church leaders are guilty of union busting. The employees are believed to be the first Catholic Church workers to reach a collective bargaining agreement. Now a panel of canon lawyers is looking into whether the contracts are legal according to church law. NPR's Jason DeRose reports.
JASON DeROSE reporting:
Two years ago, about 50 Catholic Church secretaries, janitors and yard-keepers in the diocese of Brownsville, Texas, unionized after finding out the church wasn't managing their pensions properly. Since then, 20 of the workers have left the union, some due to church closures and others under what they say was pressure from priests and the diocese. Rebecca Flores is a spokesperson for the United Farm Workers, the union representing the church employees. She says the workers are disappointed in the diocese, especially because the Catholic Church has spoken publicly on behalf of labor in both bishops' statements and papal encyclicals.
Ms. REBECCA FLORES (Spokesperson, United Farm Workers): Cesar Chavez used to hold meetings with us and would recite these encyclicals, recite them to us, and he would say, `Look, what we have to show people is that the church even says they have a right to form unions, that it isn't something that is so foreign.'
DeROSE: And, Flores says, this case is surprising because the church has helped parishioners organize in other workplaces.
Ms. FLORES: The union, because of our vast numbers of members who are Catholic, has always looked to our church for help in our campaigns.
DeROSE: The labor dispute has led to an internal church tribunal to test whether the contracts were legitimate in the first place. Brownsville Diocese spokesperson Brenda Nettles Riojas says the controversy is now about whether the church workers have the right to unionize but rather over a point of canon law.
Ms. BRENDA NETTLES RIOJAS (Spokesperson, Brownsville Diocese): A priest cannot sign a contract that encumbers a parish for more than $5,000 without the bishop's permission.
DeROSE: And, Riojas says, because Brownsville Bishop Reymundo Pena was not involved in the labor contract, it may not be legal. Riojas says despite the controversy over the specifics of the situation in the diocese of Brownsville, the church remains committed to the larger principle of workers' rights.
Ms. RIOJAS: The bishop and the Catholic Church has always been an advocate for social justice in Texas and supports and continues to support labor's rights to collective bargaining and unions.
DeROSE: Regardless of whether a specific point of canon law was properly followed, United Farm Workers Rebecca Flores says the church's teachings on social justice should guide its actions in every case.
Ms. FLORES: When it speaks out for workers, does it really mean what it says and shouldn't the church take care of its own employees?
DeROSE: A decision from the church tribunal is expected by the end of September.
Jason DeRose, NPR News.
KAST: It's 22 minutes before the hour.
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