Archdiocese strips ‘Catholic Spirit’ workers of their union contract


The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is moving forward with plans to dissolve the bargaining unit of workers at its official newspaper, The Catholic Spirit, when their current collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of this month. In an overhaul intended “to create a more integrated communications function,” the Archdiocesan Office of Communications will absorb The Catholic Spirit and some of its 13 workers, but not their union contract.

In meetings with lawyers for the archdiocese last month, Catholic Spirit workers, represented by the Minnesota Newspaper Guild, requested the archdiocese voluntarily continue to recognize their bargaining unit within the expanded communications office. The archdiocese denied that request, prompting Guild members to send a letter to Archbishop John Nienstedt seeking clarification.

“The only reason we were given for the unit disappearing so far is that the Guild unit does not fit within the central corporation’s needs,” said Chris Pierskalla, chair of the Guild’s Catholic Spirit bargaining unit. “That hasn’t been expounded upon.”

The Guild is asking supporters to contact Archbishop Nienstedt and ask him to respect the Catholic Spirit workers’ request to keep their union. To reach the archbishop, call (651) 291-4511, or fill out the e-mail form on the archbishop’s website.

The Guild has represented workers at The Catholic Spirit since 1965. Prior to the communications overhaul, the bi-weekly newspaper, with a circulation of 82,000, operated “not independently, but with autonomy” from the archdiocese, Pierskalla said. The archbishop served as publisher, but the newspaper “operates basically at the direction of the associate publisher and his staff.”

The arrangement has fostered award-winning results. The Catholic Spirit and its staff members have collected several awards from the Catholic Press Association, including first place in the General Excellence category in 2009.

It remains unclear how the newspaper will fit into the archdiocese’s new communications strategy – and how the transition will affect The Catholic Spirit’s 13 workers. Guild members, Pierskalla said, are feeling uncertain about their wages, benefits and job security.

“We’ve had two meetings, and we still don’t know what the transition plan is,” he said. “Jobs aren’t necessarily going to move over the way they are now. We know they are not moving the newspaper as it is over there; they are changing. But as of yet we don’t know what the changes are.”

In a statement released Thursday, the archdiocese confirmed plans to continue publishing on a bi-monthly schedule, but acknowledged that some Guild members will lose their jobs at the end of the month due to “overlap in functions.” For workers absorbed into the office of communications, their Guild contract will be replaced by a non-negotiable employment agreement called “Justice in Employment.”

According to the archdiocese’s release: “This employment agreement, which has been in place in the Archdiocese since 1999, provides a number of features that provide extensive protections for employees. In addition, the Archdiocese provides an Office of Conciliation to assist employees in protecting their rights afforded under the ‘Justice in Employment’ agreement.”

Pierskalla and other workers say they would prefer to keep their collective-bargaining rights.

“I would like to stay within the unit,” Pierskalla said. “I would like to have collective bargaining. If this were to be lost, what I would miss most are those opportunities to be treated like a peer at the table. Not to assume immediately that I won’t be treated that way by management going forward, but it’s an unknown right now.”

As a religious entity, the archdiocese appears to be on firm legal footing in dissolving the Catholic Spirit bargaining unit. But workers say the archdiocese, in refusing their request for voluntary recognition, ignores Catholic doctrine supporting their right to union representation.

In their letter to Nienstedt, workers cited the writings of Pope John Paul II. The letter states: “Laborem Exercens, under The Importance of Unions, No. 20, states: ‘All these rights, together with the need for the workers themselves to secure them, give rise to yet another right: the right of association, that is to form associations for the purpose of defending the vital interest of those employed in the various professions.’”