Catholic cemeteries strike innovative deal with union

by Monica Clark


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After more than four years of negotiations, the Catholic cemeteries of the Oakland diocese have reached a 10-year agreement with Local 265 of the Service Employees International Union representing their 23 groundskeepers. The agreement includes a no-layoff provision, a buyout of the union-managed pension, and health care with no lifetime cap. It was ratified by a 22-1 vote.

"This is unprecedented," said Robert Seelig, executive director of Catholic Management Services, which structured the agreement that brings the union workers into both the diocesan pension and health care plans.

Seelig, who is also executive director of Catholic funeral and cemetery services for the Oakland diocese, told NCR it will cost the cemeteries $ 4 million, paid over 20 years, to buy out the union pension, which has been in "critical status" for more than five years. The diocesan cemetery division has been paying a federally mandated surcharge into the pension fund during that time at an annual cost of more than $8,000 per employee.

The buyout will be funded through savings accrued by using subcontractors to cut lawns at the seven cemeteries. The current groundskeepers, who are guaranteed continued employment, will transition into "more proactive customer service" that deals with families at the burial sites, Seelig said. "I want them more people-focused than lawn-care-focused."

Currently, the men are going back and forth between cutting lawns and serving at the burial sites, which is inefficient and short-cuts the pastoral outreach to grieving families, he said. Each of the cemeteries averages up to 10 burials a day.

The subcontractors will likely be paid between $12 and $20 per hour with benefits, Seelig said. The union members make between $24 and $25 per hour.

Seelig said the hardest part of the negotiations was convincing the union members that joining the diocesan employer-contributed pension program was in their best interest because of uncertainty about the union fund's capacity to remain solvent. The agreement stipulates that the men won't lose their union pension benefits unless that fund fails.

[Monica Clark is an NCR West Coast correspondent.]

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