Rare labor dispute in pits Catholic church against workers in South Texas

Posted: Friday, August 01, 2003

McALLEN, Texas (AP) A rare attempt to unionize by Roman Catholic workers in South Texas has resulted in a nasty dispute, with one priest leaving a parish where there have been daily protests outside the church.

Church employees from several parishes voted last year to form a union, and a priest at Holy Spirit Church responded by firing four of the workers in June. The workers got their jobs back through a court order, but were quickly put on paid leave.

''It was like an unfriendly takeover,'' said Ann Cass, pastoral associate coordinator of ministries and one of the fired workers, all of whom are parishioners at Holy Spirit. ''The locks on the doors were changed, security guards were brought in. I've worked in this parish 22, 23 years, and we really felt violated.''

Such a dispute is unusual for the church possibly a first in the United States, according to a spokesman for the U.S. bishops' conference. The Catholic church in America has a long history of close ties to organized labor.

Brownsville Bishop Raymundo J. Pena, whose diocese runs west from the Gulf of Mexico along the Mexican border and includes the parishes involved in the union spat, has adamantly denied having anything to do with the firings.

He will not talk to reporters directly, but has issued statements that suggest the conflict within the church goes beyond a labor dispute to maverick parishioners who have promoted ideas such as women in the priesthood.

''This same group has picketed the ordination of our diocesan priests the last two years. On June 22, they were hurriedly removing the women's ordination signs from their banners and replacing them with the union signs,'' he wrote.

Cass dates the labor dispute back to 2000, when Pena changed pension plans for lay workers in the diocese from a defined benefits fund to a 403(b), a plan offered mostly by school districts and nonprofit agencies. The original benefits fund had apparently been overfunded, and the switch freed up millions of dollars for the diocese.

Cass, 56, estimated she would lose about two-thirds of her retirement funds in the switch. Feeling powerless, Holy Spirit workers teamed with employees from five other churches and approached labor lawyers with United Farm Workers.

The lawyers schooled about 30 workers in collective bargaining and helped them draw up a contract that was signed by pastors of the various churches, including then-Holy Spirit pastor Jerry Frank.

''I very willingly signed it,'' Frank said. ''I think they've got every right to organize. The church teaches that.''

Frank was soon reassigned to a string of missions in rural South Texas, and the Rev. Ruben Delgado was named Holy Spirit's new priest. Frank said he's convinced Pena made the change so he could control the labor dispute. When Delgado arrived for his first day on June 18, he fired four of the union workers.

The labor union got a state district court to reinstate the workers pending mediation, which is set to begin in August. Delgado resigned after a few days without ever saying a Mass.

The conflict is a symptom of the disconnect between church teachings on labor rights and church practices, said Michael Foley, a political science professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

''Generally, the church in the 20th century became involved in organizing and that became a standard part of Catholic teaching. That doesn't mean it can easily apply to the Catholic church,'' he said.

For three consecutive Sundays, dissidents at Holy Spirit held a simultaneous Mass outside the regular church service. For more than a month, they have gathered for protest vigils each evening, with candles flickering in the shape of a cross and bilingual hymns in Spanish and English sung to a guitar accompaniment.

In another show of defiance, teens from the parish walked 12 miles in blistering South Texas heat to deliver a letter in support of their cause to the national shrine at San Juan, the Texas border cathedral where the bishop has offices.

It's an illustration of how Catholics are fed up with the sense of powerlessness over their church and are rising up, even wielding the collection plate in protest, said Linda Pieczynski of Call to Action, a national organization of liberal Catholics.

Especially heartening, she said, is that the mobilization is taking place in a heavily Hispanic church along the Mexican border.

One of the fastest growing regions of the nation, the Texas border is also among the most impoverished. Booming retail and never-ending construction can't seem to keep ahead of the poverty brought by large families, illegal immigration and low high school graduation rates.

Holy Spirit, an upper-middle-class parish, has a history of activism, with parishioners having joined in get-out-the-vote efforts and demonstrated for an array of causes.

''I think it's very exciting,'' Pieczynski said. ''People feel they now have permission to stand up when their leaders do something wrong. I think this is the maturation of ordinary, in-the-pew Catholics.''

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