The church calls for just wages, so why can't it pay one?

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When it comes to battles over labor unions and the rights of workers, the Catholic Church has historically been firmly on the side of the laborers, arguing that everyone deserves a just wage and fair working conditions. That is, unless the church itself is the employer.

Catholic high school teachers in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia made headlines yesterday by going on strike when they could not reach an agreement on a new contract. The teachers are saying it isn't as much about money as it is job security; with shrinking numbers of Catholic schools, they want to know their chances of remaining employed if their own school closes.

The Philadelphia strike came just two days after the New York Times published a story on contract negotiations for teachers in the Archdiocese of New York. New York's Catholic school teachers are working without a deal in place and, as the story reports, they aren't known for driving a hard bargain. The Times paints the teachers as sympathetic victims, focusing on 56-year veteran of Catholic education whose lengthy teaching career has brought her a measly $56,000 a year and a $21,000 pension awaiting her in retirement. And the salaries of other teachers featured in the story make living in Manhattan almost impossible.

Such situations are not unique to the Northeast. Teachers who make a commitment to working in Catholic education are paying for it by struggling with low salaries all over the country. Discussion amongst the editors here at U.S. Catholic yesterday yielded several examples of teacher salaries in Catholic schools that are barely livable. And these issues aren't just limited to Catholic schools - diocesan employees and parish staff members are in many cases woefully underpaid as well.

So why isn't the church taking better care of its own workers? When it comes to Catholic schools, the argument is that increasing teacher salaries would force an increase in tuition, which could lead to even more students leaving for public schools, especially in poverty-stricken urban areas like New York and Philadelphia.

But church officials also must recognize that low salaries will have a negative impact on Catholic schools too. The most qualified teachers will go elsewhere out of necessity if they cannot afford to live on what the Catholic schools are paying them. And for those who do remain, either out of loyalty or a lack of options, living on a low income could have dire consequences for them and their families.

Church leaders certainly need to find ways to be thrifty when it comes to using their resources and keeping Catholic schools financially stable. But can they really afford to do so at the expense of the people who are working to carry out the mission of the church?