Cardinal Egan’s Test: Is Teachers’ Strike Really a Rebellion?

When Cardinal Edward Egan took up residence on Madison Avenue last year, he brought with him a reputation as a fiscal disciplinarian who could bring order to a sprawling and deficit-ridden Archdiocese of New York. He’s lived up to his billing, laying off workers at the archdiocese’s headquarters on First Avenue, scaling back the archdiocesan newspaper from a weekly to a monthly, closing several schools and taking a tough stand in contract talks with the Catholic schoolteachers’ union.

Now more than a year into his tenure, the Cardinal is about to face a full-scale rebellion and a public-relations nightmare as he grapples with an annual deficit estimated at $20 million. With teachers at 10 Catholic high schools already walking picket lines, a sick-out at three other high schools is on the verge of mushrooming into a full-fledged strike that could shut down the archdiocese’s 238 elementary schools and 55 high schools, affecting more than 100,000 students. And looming in the background is the near certainty of more school closings and a possible confrontation with the archdiocese’s health-care workers, who staff 17 church-run hospitals and medical facilities in one of the country’s largest health-care systems.

With the 377-member Lay Faculty Association out of the classroom and staging demonstrations outside the cardinal’s midtown residence, the 3,600-member Federation of Catholic Teachers is preparing to join the association’s strike. Michele MacDonald, the president of the union, told The Observer that the union’s executive board very likely will call for a strike vote by members on Dec. 5.

“I would assume that we will recommend a strike if I don’t see any movement by the archdiocese,” said Ms. MacDonald, a grandmother and former nun who has taught in Catholic schools on Staten Island for the past 27 years. “The archdiocese is forcing us to take that route. Cardinal Egan feels he has a deficit to satisfy, and he’s trying to do it on the backs of the teachers.” Both Catholic school unions have been without a contract since September. The archdiocese reportedly has offered a 2 percent annual raise, but the teachers say the increase in pay would be more than offset by a 20 percent increase in the out-of-pocket costs of a new health plan. The union wants a larger wage increase-although it hasn’t specified how much larger-and wants to keep the current health plan.

Monsignor Peter G. Finn, rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers and a former spokesman for the archdiocese, defended the cardinal’s stance. “The church and Cardinal Egan and everyone else are sharing in the pressures of the economic recession that we’re in,” he said. “We’re all trying to deal with this as best we can.”

Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Cardinal, did not return calls for comment.

The archdiocese has been preparing for a showdown with its teachers’ unions for several weeks. On Nov. 29, the archdiocese sent out a fax to its school principals, directing them to keep their schools open in the event of a strike in order to maintain negotiating leverage with the union. “If schools cannot function during a strike, our ability to negotiate a settlement you can live with and in terms of work rules is extremely limited,” the fax read. “Teachers cannot [have their salaries withheld] if they go on strike and you close the school.”

In some ways, the situation of the Catholic schoolteachers mirrors that of their public-school counterparts, who are also agitating for a raise. The chief executive (Rudolph Giuliani or Cardinal Egan) comes into office bent on reining in the fiscal excesses of his liberal predecessor (David Dinkins or Cardinal John O’Connor), resulting in much saber-rattling and ill will between union and management. But there are several key differences. For one, Catholic schoolteachers are paid far less than their public-school counterparts-the maximum salary for public elementary schoolteachers in New York is $70,000, as opposed to $37,010 for Catholic schoolteachers. For another, the city’s finances are public, but the archdiocese’s finances are not. (The archdiocese has said that its annual operating deficit is $20 million.) And for all the stylistic contrasts between Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Dinkins in dealing with the city’s unions, the difference could not be more extreme between Cardinal Egan and his predecessor, Cardinal O’Connor, who was known to act more like a union boss than a C.E.O. when dealing with his employees.

Of course, the single biggest flaw in any comparison between the archdiocese and any governmental or business organization is that the church’s mission is not dictated-at least not in theory-by bottom-line economics. The city’s Catholic schools-founded in the mid–19th century by the legendary Bishop John Hughes-have a special place in the hearts of the 2.4 million Catholics in the archdiocese. Many of them have become beloved neighborhood institutions, and now offer a refuge to low-income non-Catholics who attend parish schools in old Catholic neighborhoods. These schools often are the archdiocese’s biggest money-losers, and they’re often among the first to get hit when subsidies from the archdiocese are reduced.

Cardinal Egan, then, finds himself in a classic no-win situation. If he continues the status quo, the archdiocese will continue to bleed red ink, threatening its very existence. If he continues to close schools, he’ll be criticized by those who believe the church’s mission ought to supersede the bottom line.

Even as they concede that keeping schools afloat has been a costly affair, the Catholic schoolteachers continue to offer an argument that is more moralistic than economic. It’s not easy for even the most skilled negotiator to produce a snappy reply, for example, to Ms. MacDonald’s assertion that “we really have a cardinal who does not care.”

“We know what Cardinal Egan says about the bottom line, but what about the people who have given their life blood to make the system what it is?” Ms. MacDonald said. “If they close these and drive teachers away, they might as well close the Catholic Church-they’re destroying it from within. People said that Cardinal O’Connor gave away the store, and he may have, but he saved a tremendous number of souls. Cardinal Egan is losing souls.”

A Fine Balance

But there are also many people of faith within the archdiocese who feel that Cardinal Egan is making necessary sacrifices, and who defend his cost-saving measures as necessary in the wake of his predecessor’s unwillingness to find a balance between soul-saving and book-keeping. “I’m not sure many people realize how serious the financial problems are that Cardinal Egan has faced,” said a former pastor. “His predecessor did not have much restraint in spending money, which caused a massive deficit. The cardinal has gone after it heavily, and of course the people directly affected are unhappy, but it’s a job he’s got to do.”

The points of contention in this case are still fairly serious. And as of press time, the two sides were not talking to each other.

While the cardinal’s stand very likely will bolster his reputation for fiscal responsibility, there is also a risk that he will be see within the church as anti-labor, a charge to which the cardinal has been sensitive in the past. In August 2000, three months after Cardinal O’Connor’s death, New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse reported on Cardinal Egan’s cool relations with labor during his time as bishop of Bridgeport, Conn. The article cited as one example a contract dispute at a Catholic hospital in Bridgeport “when Bishop Egan was on the board.”

He wasn’t.

Cardinal Egan was sufficiently incensed to call attention to the error at that year’s Labor Day mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as aides handed out a packet of papers that included a copy of the Times clip. An attached note read, “The Most Reverend Edward M. Egan has never served on the Board of Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Bridgeport, or even on a committee or discussion group connected with the hospital. The Hospital has no unions.” More than a year later, at an event last October organized by the New York City Central Labor Council, the cardinal again assailed Mr. Greenhouse in an address to the assembled union chiefs. “I would say he’s sort of obsessed with this,” said one labor leader who was at both events.