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Labor's concerns follow new archbishop to New York

Citing his previous encounters with organized labor, union leaders are worried the new archbishop will be less friendly than his predecessor.

At the end of Cardinal John O'Connor's life, union leaders took out a full-page New York Times ad proclaiming him the "patron saint of working people." Some labor activists say his successor, Bishop Edward Egan, has been hostile to unions.

"The bishop came across as being pretty much anti-union," said Paul Fortier, formerly vice president of the New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199, who picketed Egan's Bridgeport, Conn., cathedral during 1996 negotiations at a Catholic hospital. Cemetery workers made a similar charge in a separate dispute; a labor representative, Robert Barber, said Egan hired a law firm to "break the union."

Egan responded that he is committed to worker rights. "The Catholic Church has a long-standing tradition of support for working men and women. We will always stay true to that tradition," he said Tuesday through a spokesman.

That doesn't necessarily mean supporting unions, but rather letting employees decide whether to organize, spokesman Tom Drohan said. "The diocese of Bridgeport does not want to put employees in a position that they have to pay union dues if they don't want to pay dues," Drohan said.

To union leaders, however, such open shop arrangements lessen workers' bargaining power.

The Catholic Church has long lauded organized labor. Pope John Paul II's 1981 encyclical, On Human Work, calls unions "a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice."

Earlier in the century, the American Catholic church was known for its labor activists, including "worker priests" who joined immigrant laborers on the picket line. The son of a union craftsman, O'Connor was among the most outspoken supporters of the right to organize and was known for mediating labor disputes.

Egan, the son of a businessman, "is not cut from the same cloth as labor priests from an earlier generation," says John Russo, coordinator of labor studies at Youngstown University. Among bishops today, he is more the norm than his predecessor.

"They may be supportive of labor unions in certain areas," Russo said, "but within Catholic institutions they keep them at arm's length."

St. Michael Cemetery in Stratford, Conn., was unionized during the 1930s. While the eight newer Catholic cemeteries in Egan's Bridgeport diocese have all been non-union, the diocese extended the benefits negotiated at St. Michael to all cemetery workers for decades.

But in 1993, a Bridgeport law firm that the diocese retained to negotiate with St. Michael called for another approach.

"I recommended that it would be more efficient and proper to be non-union," says lawyer Terry Durant. "You have to look at the big picture. When so many cemeteries were non-union, it made more sense to be non-union. (The bishop's) finance people agreed to it."

Drohan calls Durant's proposal "a starting position" that was not anti-union. Barber, a former laborer who was the workers' union representative, disagreed.

"This thing was set up by the diocese to break the union," said Barber, who believes the diocese worried the union was going to organize all the cemeteries.

Gravediggers picketed the bishop's house and Sunday Masses, citing papal encyclicals on the right to collective bargaining, and asked parishioners to skip the Sunday collection until the dispute was settled.

Finally, the workers went on strike. Union leaders say they agreed to an open-shop clause only to return to work.

Jerome Brown, president of the New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199, said similar tensions arose during negotiations at St. Camillus Health Center in Stamford, Conn.

In a 1997 letter, Brown said Egan had ordered St. Camillus managementto ask for an open-shop contract for the workers.

But Durant, the labor lawyer who also represented the diocese in this case, said the bishop never tried to prevent a union. "Our initial position was that it would be up to the employees," he said.

After the workers threatened to strike, the diocese agreed to a modified union shop, in which current employees had the option of joining and future employees are required to join.

Since Egan's elevation this month to archbishop of New York, a city with a recent history of close ties between church and labor, union leaders have voiced hope that he will become more like O'Connor.

But veteran labor activist Monsignor George Higgins points out that both O'Connor and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles arrived at their archdioceses with a record on labor issues.

"New York didn't make O'Connor a labor man," Higgins said. "He said a thousand times he got it from his father and he brought that with him to New York."

Egan will not be another O'Connor on labor, he said. "It's not his specialty; it's not his interest."