by Kate Childs Graham | December 17, 2012
Pope John Paul II called unions an “indispensable element of social life.”
Yet, for too many workers at Catholic institutions of higher education, that which the pope deemed indispensable is actually invisible. Of the 230 Catholic colleges and universities, hardly any have collective bargaining agreements with their workers.
That was the case with St. Michael’s College in Vermont, an institution whose mission promises “policies that are consistent with the principles of the Catholic faith.” But it took more than a mission statement to bring a union for the workers of St. Michael’s. It took a group of dedicated custodians who wanted a union for the same reasons many do: fair pay, good health insurance and a secure retirement.
The custodians had gone without a pay increase for years. This year, the college gave them an increase of about nine dollars per week, while other employees got a raise of $2,500 or more. The custodians saw this as evidence of inequality and a threat to the solidarity of their community – both of which have been cited as injustice by Catholic bishops.
And so, they began to organize.
Many of their fellow custodians were eager to join the effort. Some took more work to convince.
In a flyer distributed to workers before the vote to unionize, union opponents resorted to scare tactics. It read, “SMC will eventually have no choice but to outsource your job to a staffing agency.”
According to Tom Kingston, a custodian and organizer of the union drive, St. Michael’s president also opposed the union and that negatively influenced his professional staff.
“Many employees viewed union activism as opposition to the Church,” Kingston shared.
While the clergy on campus remained silent, the students spoke out for the workers.
Six years ago, the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) formed to pressure St. Michaels to bring its policies in line with Catholic values. Previously, they ran a campaign to get products made in sweatshops out of the college bookstore.
The students of SLAM stood in solidarity with the custodians from the start of the campaign. They made statements of support. They held coffee breaks for the custodians. They provided refreshments at the union meetings. They gathered petition signatures. And they offered ideas and encouragement to the custodians’ cause.
“A Catholic college like St. Mike’s embodies certain social values,” senior Jerry Carter told a local news outlet. “It’s very important to treat with respect and dignity the people who work here. It’s important to pay them a livable wage and to ensure they have a healthy work environment.”
On November 14, the custodians voted in favor of unionizing and joining AFSCME. Now, they are focused on negotiating a fair contract. The students are looking to their next organizing drive. And St. Michael’s is one step closer to having policies “consistent with the principles of the Catholic faith.”
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