As teachers reject offer from Philly archdiocese, union leader seeks papal intervention

Teachers in the region’s Catholic high schools have rejected an “early bird” contract offer from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, setting the stage for a possible strike during the pope’s highly anticipated visit to the region this fall.

Rita Schwartz, the president of the Association of Catholic Teachers, said her members don’t want to strike. But if they do, she hopes Pope Francis will understand.

“He just spoke not too long ago with the Italian Catholic teachers union, and he told them how much he respected them, and how underpaid they were,” Schwartz said “So I wrote to him and I asked to meet with him while he’s here in Philadelphia in September.”

Schwartz said she hoped any strike would be over by then. “I hope I’m not meeting him outside — I’d rather meet him inside,” she said.

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And while she insisted that she wasn’t trying to use the pope’s visit for the World Meeting of Families as leverage to get a better deal, she did say she was encouraged by the pontiff’s expression of support for organized labor and teachers alike, calling the Italian teachers’ low salaries “an injustice.”

Details of the latest proposal aren’t available. But Schwartz said that the “early bird” offer from the archdiocese — in which the parties agree to limit negotiations to only salaries and benefits — would have represented a net loss for her members.

“If they’re going ask us to pay more for medical, we understand that,” said Schwartz. “But we also need a salary increase to pay for that. We can’t go back to school at a loss. We can’t.”

Archdiocese officials didn’t want to comment, but did release a statement saying they remain “committed to a contract agreement that respects the needs of not only our teachers but also our school families who sacrifice to provide a quality Catholic education for their children.”

The archdiocese says it will continue to bargain in good faith in hopes of finding a deal that is “fair to all parties while recognizing that the needs and expectations of our students and school families are paramount.”

Negotiations between the union and the archdiocese will continue through the summer. The Catholic school teachers last struck for two weeks in 2011, winning a pay raise of about 8 percent.

A total of about 13,000 students attend the archdiocese’s 17 high schools in the five-county region.

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