Pashinski Rallying Support for Labor Law Amendment

By Erin Moody
Citizens Voice
May 24, 2008

WILKES-BARRE — Picketing teachers and sign-waving students and alumni are ready for the fight between the Scranton Diocese Association of Catholic Teachers and the diocese to move into the state Legislature.

It'll go there with the help of state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, who is gathering support for a proposal that would amend the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act to allow lay teachers and employees at Catholic schools to join collective bargaining units.

"The diocese will undertake a review of this proposed legislation," a Diocese of Scranton release indicated. "The diocese will have no comment at this time."

In January, Bishop Joseph Martino announced the diocese would not recognize the union and would instead launch an employee relations program.

SDACT members and supporters backed Pashinski's proposal and plan to attend a Rally for Rights on June 14 at 1 p.m. on Wilkes-Barre's Public Square to support the union. Friday's press conference was held outside Holy Redeemer High School in Wilkes-Barre.

"I am absolutely thrilled," Holy Redeemer chemistry teacher Mary Humiston said. "It's been a long time coming."

It's a battle that's being played out on several levels, however, with the constitutionality and legality of Catholic teachers unions being brought into question.

While some Catholic school teachers have unionized successfully, such as the Federation of Catholic Teachers in New York, two rulings have limited the ability to unionize nationally and in Pennsylvania.

In a landmark case involving a Chicago bishop in 1979, the Supreme Court found, "There is no clear expression of an affirmative intention of Congress that teachers in church-operated schools should be covered by the (National Labor Relations Act)."

A Pennsylvania case in 1997 made a similar ruling.

The proposal Pashinski introduced would nullify that argument and remove that obstacle for groups like SDACT, organization President Michael Milz said.

"We are Americans who have rights that are being taken away because of a loophole," he said. "This will close that loophole."

These decisions support religious organizations by insuring the state and religion do not mix, said the Rev. Sinclair Oubreco, founder and coordinator of Catholic Labor Networks, an organization supporting unionization. However, the rulings have been abused.

"This is sort of a strange situation," he said. "It is a good decision, but the effect of the church using it to block the ability of teachers to unionize is completely counter to what the church teaches."

Besides closing the loophole, Milz said, the legislation has to be written carefully to avoid creating conflicts between church and state, the next legal problem the SDACT could encounter. As long as it avoids those problems, he believes it is constitutional for Catholic teachers to unionize.

"The law will be carefully worded," he said. "We are making sure the law does not have anything to do with religion."

While Pashinski is taking the battle to the state Legislature, the religious battle continues within the Roman Catholic Church.

The church has a history of teaching that unions are good and should be encouraged, Oubreco said. A 1986 pastoral letter from U.S. bishops on Catholic social teaching and the U.S. economy reads, "All church institutions must fully recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively with the institution."

That support is what SDACT wants and hopes to achieve through amending the PLRA and negotiating with the diocese, Milz said.

"The church has always said it, and the church is violating its own teachings," Milz said.

While recognizing that religion and government are supposed to be separate, there are notable circumstances, such as the recent sexual abuse scandal, in which that changes.

"When we fail to follow our law, our church law, and fail to follow our church teachings, usually the civil government steps in to fill the gaps and slaps us hard," Oubreco said.

According to the Catholic Code of Canon Law, Can. 1286, "Administrators of goods: in the employment of workers are to observe meticulously also the civil laws concerning labor and social policy, according to the principles handed on by the church."

In laymen's terms, if the church teachings agree with civil laws, the church should follow those laws, Oubreco said and added, "in a way, the church law binds us to follow the civic law even though the civil authorities can't enforce that law."

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