Thursday, January 31, 2008

Teachers "Light the Way"

As many of you know, this is Catholic Schools Week here in the States, and observances are abounding in more places than they aren't.

It's an ever-needed reminder that the daily mission of Catholic education keeps on in our midst thanks to the almost 200,000 teachers, overwhelmingly layfolk, who serve in an untold number of schools and institutes at all levels.

Not for nothing has the Pope's voice on these shores termed them "the greatest artists" we've got. And whether their venue is sectarian or public, the work of teaching too often exacts a just-as-great level of sacrifice on the part of those who, day after day, "sculpt the best of [them]selves, of who you are and what you know, not in a piece of marble, but in living, breathing human beings, who are the glory of God."

Especially in these days of rising costs, falling enrollments -- and, ergo, even greater sacrifices -- theirs is just another of the many vocations in the life of the church, and its life in the world, for which we don't always give sufficient thanks, encouragement and support.

Along these lines, one nearby diocese's Catholic educators were joined by hundreds of others last night in a call for the restoration of their union, which its central administration recently announced it would no longer recognize.

Scranton Diocese Association of Catholic Teachers President Michael Milz stood in the flatbed of a red pickup truck and spoke to the throng, many holding candles or signs with slogans including, “Practice what you preach or we won’t teach.”

Milz recounted the strong support the Catholic Church and the local diocese have shown for unionized labor in the past, holding up a picture of former Bishop Michal Hoban, President Theodore Roosevelt and United Mine Workers President John Mitchell together on the steps of Holy Savior Church in Wilkes-Barre during the miners’ struggle for better wages and working conditions.

“Bishop Hoban was not there for window dressing,” Milz said. “It was an acknowledgment that the Church in Scranton had supported the cause of the miners. And the cause for which they were fighting was nothing less than human dignity.”

Milz noted Mitchell was not born Catholic but converted after the church backed the union cause, ultimately being buried in the nearby St. Peter’s Cathedral cemetery.

“I’m sure the lights on his grave are shining just a little brighter tonight because we are here.”

UMW representative Ken Klinkel said about 20 from his union came to show support because “it’s the right thing to do.” Klinkel called the diocese’s rejection of the union “unjust.”

He noted there were representatives from the Teamsters, pipefitters, electricians, machinists and Scranton Fire Department unions....

The union first asked the diocese for recognition as sole bargaining agent for teachers under the new system when it was announced in November 2006 but where told such recognition would have to come from the regional boards.

When the boards were formed in October 2007, the union sought recognition from three of them, including the one overseeing Luzerne County schools, but were told to wait until the boards organized and settled other pressing issues. In December, the union asked those three boards for a firm answer by Jan. 10. That answer came through an article in the Jan. 24 edition of the Catholic Light, the diocesan newspaper.

That article said the three boards had each adopted a new “employee relations program” and rejected the union’s request to represent teachers. The union has insisted this runs counter to Catholic teachings dating back to 1891 when Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical called “Rerum Novarum,” which supported organized labor.

After his speech, Milz said the rejection was “very troubling” and promised the union will not give up its effort to reverse it.

“They have to change their decision because they can’t change the teachings of the church,” Milz said.

Among the many students in the large crowd, Joel, Tara and Paul Ignatovich stood on the curb before the rally holding candles and smiling. Tara, a senior at Holy Redeemer High School in Wilkes-Barre, said their mother is a band instructor at the school, and the musical talent has been passed on. She plays the French horn while her brothers – twins in 10th grade – play trombone and trumpet.

“The church’s decision doesn’t make sense,” Tara said. “We (our teachers) should have the same rights as other teachers.”

Behind her, an adult shouted out: “United we bargain, divided we beg.”

...more specs:
In the six days since the diocese announced the Scranton Diocese Association of Catholic Teachers will not be recognized as a collective bargaining unit, teachers have expressed their discontent and have vowed to keep fighting for the union.

“What’s at stake here is really the stability of the schools,” said Michael Milz, president of the teachers association. “The quality of Catholic education is going to slip.”

Instead of recognizing the union, the diocese will implement an employee relations program composed of employee councils and wage and benefit, health care and grievance committees.

In the year since the diocese reorganized its school system, Mr. Milz said teacher benefits have been cut and the workload and workday have increased. And although all school employees received a 3-percent pay increase, it went to insurance costs, he said.

The schools’ clerical workers have also seen an increase in their workday. In the summer, instead of working half-days like the employees had in previous years, they will work a full day with no pay increase, Mr. Milz said.

In a statement released Tuesday, the diocese said it was committed to “fair and just treatment of all its employees,” and that the employee relations program will fulfill the commitment.

“Implementation of this program is proceeding, and there will be no change by the diocese in this matter,” according to the statement. “The provision of affordable Catholic education continues to be the diocesan goal in which all are called to cooperate.”
For the record, as many of you already know, your narrator isn't a product of Catholic education -- like this work, I'm a very grateful, very proud "public." But many of my own teachers -- the folks responsible for whatever's good in me -- came from its embrace, and the years have blessed me with knowing so many great servants of the work, particularly those who, amid the difficulties of the inner-city, bring life and hope in the places where they're needed most.

Whether private, public, parochial or whatever else, to all our teachers, no words could ever say enough thanks...

Danny, look out for 'em.

PHOTO: Pete G. Wilcox/The Times-Leader