Miss Miller was my second grade teacher at St. Catherine of Alexandria in north St. Louis County. Every Thursday she had lunch, one on one, with a different student. My mother is also a Catholic schoolteacher. I grew up hearing her make evening calls to parents not about problems, but to tell them their children were doing well. Miss Miller, my mother and so many other teachers work through their evenings, weekends and work breaks because of their deep commitment to Catholic education. A lot of them even say it is a "calling."
Eight years ago, St. Louis Catholic elementary school teachers like Miss Miller and my mother were disheartened by what they saw as an Archdiocesan leadership slowly abandoning their commitment to a Catholic school system. In order to have a voice in getting much needed improvements to curriculum, funding and working conditions for teachers, the teachers organized a union, the Association of Catholic Elementary Educators (ACEE).
When they petitioned Archbishop Justin Rigali for recognition, they were hopeful. The Catholic Church has a long tradition of supporting the right of workers to organize. However, Rigali found a way to wiggle out of the church's commitment. He claimed the individual parishes, not the Archdiocese, employed the teachers; therefore, he said, he was unable to accept or deny ACEE's request for union recognition.
Rigali's solution in 1995 was to propose a Partnership Plan that originally consisted of two parts: the compensation committee and the grievance & appeal committee. The prospects for partnership and for progress seemed ripe that first year and so ACEE members voted to "give it a try." After eight years of the Partnership Plan, however, most of the teachers now see it lacks adequate power to affect long-term decisions concerning the opening and closing of schools, the resolution of conflicts and the economic stability of either schools or teachers.
Throughout the last eight years they have seen more clearly that they need a real voice in their school system. This school year St. Louis' Catholic elementary school teachers went to the trouble of once again having a majority of their colleagues sign cards expressing support for their union. This time they're settling for nothing short of sitting at the bargaining table with the Archdiocese.
An important challenge to their organizing effort is that, as employees of a church, Archdiocesan elementary teachers do not fall under the National Labor Relations Act and therefore cannot hold an election that legally compels their employer to bargain. ACEE depends on community support to bring the Archdiocese to the table.
ACEE has never lacked for community support. Throughout its eight years, parents have consistently stepped up to defend the teachers and encourage their organizing efforts. As ACEE began this new round of organizing, President Mary Chubb knew that they needed a more organized way to turn this support in the community into an organized force to bring the Archdiocese to the table.
Mary and ACEE had been active in the labor-community coalition, St. Louis Area Jobs with Justice (JwJ). JwJ's mission is to support workers' rights and economic justice struggles. One of the other member organizations of Jobs with Justice was the Catholic Action Network (CAN), which works to hold the Catholic Church to its proud social justice teachings. Mary called the groups together to create the "Friends of ACEE." The Friends would allow parents to plug into two solid organizations in order to support the teachers' organizing campaign.
To date, nearly 2000 St. Louisans have signed up to be "Friends of ACEE." They take turns calling the Archbishop every single day to ask why he hasn't recognized the teachers' union. They write letters to the editor. They talk to other parents at their kids' summer softball games. Some of them even walked a picket line with the teachers this June when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops met at Union Station.
Still, Archbishop Rigali persists with the weak excuse that the parish, not the Archdiocese, is the employer. The Archdiocese reviews and approves all teacher employment contracts. It keeps the personnel records. It holds the title to all parish properties, including schools. Archdiocesan committees determine the salaries and benefits for the teachers. When confronted with these facts, Rigali meets the teachers and their supporters with silence.
Teachers are impatient for progress. After eight years of "Father, may I?" committees, they are ready to truly negotiate improvements to the school system. If the Archbishop will insist that parishes are the employer, the teachers have no choice but to ask for recognition on a parish-by-parish basis. In the last week of July, ACEE sent requests for recognition to 34 parishes where a significant majority of teachers support ACEE. As this issue of TheCommonspace.org went to publication, the teachers had not received a response from these parishes or the Archbishop.
St. Louis Catholic teachers need their supporters more than ever. I remember Miss Miller always made sure I had a place at the table. It's time we returned the favor.
You can support St. Louis Catholic elementary school teachers by becoming a "Friend of ACEE" at the Jobs with Justice website, www.stl-jwj.org/ACEE.
Lara Granich is the director of St. Louis Area Jobs with Justice.