San Francisco teacher union fanning hopes for contract breakthrough

This article appears in the San Francisco faculty handbooks feature series. View the full series.

San Francisco — A spark of hope that San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has signaled flexibility on a key impediment to contract negotiations with the union representing employees of the four high schools owned and operated by the archdiocese is being fanned by union members.

During a question-and-answer period following a Friday talk to more than 350 Catholic high school educators gathered at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory School in San Francisco, Cordileone indicated openness to altering contract language he is seeking that would classify employees in the four schools as “ministers.”

Union members fear that designation would distance them from legal protection against discriminatory actions or firings by making them an official part of the church apparatus.

“All is lost” if the ministerial definition is adopted in contract language, one member said during the meeting.

Asked following his address if he was willing to discuss changing or removing the term “minister,” Cordileone said his goal is “to find language” that would “reflect employees' legal rights” but at the same time accomplish his push to make clear that all employees are collaborators in a Catholic school's mission and that the Catholic schools of the archdiocese endorse the entirety of Catholic church teaching.

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He also said, “I've already thought of” possible language options. He did not elaborate.

Several dozen members of San Francisco Archdiocesan Federation of Teachers Local 2240 and their elected representatives remained in the SHCP assembly room to meet following Cordileone's keynote address there just over an hour earlier for an annual high school teachers' in-service day.

Teachers from all 14 of the Catholic high schools within the archdiocese attended the convocation. Only four of the schools -- SHCP and Archbishop Riordan in San Francisco, Marin Catholic in Kentfield, and Junipero Serra in San Mateo -- come under direct archdiocesan administration, and only those four have union representation.

According to a report in the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic San Francisco, about 470 full and part-time teachers and staff are employed at those four schools which enroll about 3,600 students.

The union represents “about 400 members,” nearly all of them full-time teachers, union official Susan Woodall told NCR. The union does not represent other staff who are part-time, maintenance or administrative, she said. The union was formed more than four decades ago.

During the union meeting, Woodall said she was both “delighted” and “encouraged” by the archbishop's apparent receptiveness to discussing use of the word “minister.”

No specific “language ideas” have been revealed “as we have yet to meet with the archbishop,” Woodall wrote Saturday in a email to NCR. “That should happen within the next few weeks.”

Union representatives are scheduled to meet with presidents of the four high schools on Monday to resume contract talks.

When Cordileone expressed "thanks and esteem" for the union negotiating team during the question-and-answer period, the crowd erupted in sustained applause. 

Much of the union meeting's give-and-take also dealt with the widely publicized and controversial statement Cordileone developed for inclusion in the 2015-16 faculty handbooks of the four archdiocesan-administered campuses.

The 2,000-word statement, titled "Statement of the High Schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Regarding the Teachings and Practice of the Catholic Church," was made public Feb. 3 and quickly generated significant news coverage and opposition.

The free-standing handbook segment puts faculty and other employees on notice about heightened demands regarding adherence to Catholic teaching, particularly on sexual issues, and warns against taking public positions contrary to church teaching.

The section:

  • Delineates areas of church teaching on "sexual morality and religious practice" it says needs more clarity and emphasis;
  • Underscores that "administrators, faculty and staff of any faith or no faith are expected to arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny" church doctrine and practice;
  • Calls on "administrators, faculty and staff who are Catholics" to "not only avoid public contradiction of their status as professional agents in the mission of Catholic education," but to also "conform their hearts, minds and consciences, as well as their public and private behavior, ever more closely to the truths taught by the Catholic Church";
  • Warns educators to "refrain from participation in organizations that call themselves 'Catholic' but support or advocate issues or causes contrary" to church teaching.

Woodall and others at the Friday union assembly underscored that the union does not have any direct authority to impact handbook content.

“Let's focus on what we can control and what we cannot,” charged one member. He called the handbook controversy “a red herring” that drew attention and focus from union negotiations on teacher retirement, benefits, wages and performance reviews.

Another member who said he was “a 31-year teacher” said “my Catholicism comes first” and warned against the union “losing sight of what” the archbishop “had to say about the role” of a Catholic school institution in conveying church teaching.

“Not all people in this union feel the same way,” he said.

While the handbook section and the union contract clauses are separate issues, labor negotiations and handbook content have long been intertwined, archdiocesan superintended of schools Maureen Huntington told NCR last week.

Catholic San Francisco reported that "the handbook additions will take effect in the 2015-16 school year and are not part of the [teachers'] contract.” However, a legal expert consulted by NCR said faculty handbooks do have legal bearing.

Nearly 200 persons, most of them students, staged a prayer vigil and protest Friday morning on the plaza of St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral as the Mass for high school teachers prior to their convocation was taking place inside. Cordileone was celebrant and homilist.

The protesters formed a two-block long line from the Cathedral exit to the entrance of SHCP as teachers left the liturgy. Clearly moved by the show of support, many teachers said, “Thanks,” “Thank you guys,” “We appreciate it,” as they walked.

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR West Coast Correspondent. His email address is dmyoung@ncronline.org.]


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