Sunday, November 20, 2005

Tribunal: Contracts Invalid.

Lay Workers’ UFW Contract Invalid
November 19, 2005
James Osborne The Monitor

McALLEN — A Catholic Church tribunal has declared the union contract between church lay workers and the United Farmworkers of America invalid under church law, the Diocese of Brownsville announced Friday.

The tribunal, composed of three ecclesiastical judges from outside the diocese, stated the Rev. Jerry Frank, formerly of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in McAllen, broke church law when he signed the contract with UFW in 2002 without first asking Bishop Raymundo Peña’s permission, said diocese spokeswoman Brenda Nettles-Riojas.

Ann Cass, a pastoral coordinator at Holy Spirit, said that while she is disappointed with the decision, she and other workers would continue to fight the issue in district court, where they filed a lawsuit against the diocese in 2003. "We don’t in any way consider this a defeat because we’re fighting for justice in a church we love very much," Cass said. "If we have to take this to the Supreme Court, we will."

The decision to unionize came in 2002 after Peña converted lay workers’ pension plans to 403(b) plans, something senior workers like Cass criticized. They say the change would have reduced their retirement income about 30 to 50 percent. Around 30 employees from four area churches signed on with the UFW, who installed a new pension plan to which the parishes were required to contribute to under the contract Frank signed.

While the tribunal has now declared that contract invalid, the effect it will have on workers’ pensions is still unclear. "I spoke with Father Louis Brum (pastor of Holy Spirit), and they’re going to consider what steps to take, if any, but that it’s too early to say," Riojas said.

The UFW, which is leading the legal battle on behalf of the workers, said it was still considering what action to take in light of Friday’s announcement. "We’re still working on the legal recourse we have, but we’re still challenging the bishop to sign the contract," said State UFW Director Rebecca Flores. "Why is he expending all this money on setting up this tribunal and paying lawyers to challenge a contract that’s simply protecting their workers?"

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