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Archive for Saturday, August 2, 2003

Dispute pits church against workers

August 2, 2003

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— 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 approached labor lawyers with United Farm Workers.

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