WILKES-BARRE – With temperatures in the teens and the sun still so low the crowd shivered in shadows, Holy Redeemer High School teachers pushing for unionization held an informational picket before classes Friday morning.
Catholic school teachers

Teachers from various Luzerne County Catholic schools hold an “informational picket” outside Holy Redeemer High School in Wilkes-Barre before the start of class. The teachers want the chance to unionize.

As impressive as the showing was – the line included teachers from most Luzerne County Catholic schools, some parents and students, stretching half the length of the school – it was dwarfed a short time later by a massive student walkout in support of the same cause.

Teachers stood outdoors, coddling coffee cups as early as 6:45 a.m., with signs they have used in previous rallies aimed at forcing Bishop Joseph Martino to reverse a decision that rejected unionization.

Bishop Martino apparently was not moved. The diocese issued a statement in the afternoon saying that, regarding the rejection of the union, “The decision is final and will not be revoked, and the implementation of the employee relations program has begun.”

The largest signs were held by a small group of female students spearheaded by sisters Brittany and Erika Stanczak of Luzerne.

“Students support teachers union, why can’t the bishop?” Erika had painted on one large sheet of white cloth she and Brittany held as cars drove by beeping horns in support.

“What would Jesus do?” another cloth sign held by three friends asked, then answered “Talk with love,” the word “love” symbolized by a heart.

Martino has not spoken with the union despite numerous requests. He favors replacing the union with a diocese employee relations program.

“We’re supporting our teachers. I love them,” Brittany said. “After all the hard work they do for us, I think this is nothing. I’m not even thinking about the cold. I’m thinking about them.”

Well, maybe the frost crept in a little. She conceded a few minutes later that “My feet are freezing,” her toes tucked into thin slips of pink with tiny polka dots.

Brittany, a sophomore who wants to be a teacher, said she and Erika planned to participate in a student walkout set for 8 a.m., after the students finished homeroom.
Union support

The union netted support from teachers from every county school except those in the Hazleton area, union President Michael Milz said. There were also representatives from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and two women taking the roles of dual representation.

Anna Jesse held up a sign with one side that read “I’m old, I’m cold, but I support unions,” while the other side said “Grandparents support our teachers.” A second sign read simply “solidarnoz,” the Polish word for solidarity that became a global union battle cry when Lech Walesa organized shipyard workers in then-communist Poland.

Jesse said her grandfather migrated to the country, and her father worked in the mines.

“Unions helped my grandfather and my father, and the Catholic Church stood behind those unions,” she said, noting she has a grandson at Holy Redeemer. “I never thought I’d see the day the Catholic Church would abandon the common worker.

“I’m frustrated at how ham-handed the bishop has been. He is spending a lot of money figuring out how to close schools instead of keeping them open,” Jesse said. “It was the teachers who made consolidation of the schools work, who brought the kids together as one.”

Jesse’s daughter, Anna Galinski, stood next to her holding a sign saying “Unionized nurses support the teachers.” A union nurse, Galinski said her son intended to join the planned walkout, though rumors were flying that the administration would try to block the doorways.

“If that happens they plan to protest by sitting in the hallways,” Galinski said, adding that she will back her son’s decision.

“My feeling is that my child has a right to free speech. I support that right.”

After union members disbanded to head for their classes, parents remained, waiting to see if the student walkout would occur. Jerry Bradford of Shavertown joined a growing crowd, holding a sign that read “Among the basic rights of the human person is to be numbered the right of freely forming unions for working people. Vatican II.”

“The kids were concerned for safety reasons,” Bradford said, “they wanted to have some parents here.”
Cheering mass

Almost as soon as the muffled sound of the 8 a.m. school bell could be heard outside, students started coming out the door.

“Walkout! Support our teachers!” one shouted.

Students walked out of the building, first in one large wave that drew long applause from the parents, then in an even bigger throng.

The students headed around the corner into the parking lot where David Kosloski, Michael Bedrin and Kevin Hourigan addressed the cheering mass through an underpowered bullhorn. The Stanczak sisters worked their way to the front of the crowd and unfurled their banner. Others students held up signs that read “Communion with the union,” “Jesus was a teacher too,” and “Got union?”

“We respect our teachers and support their fight,” Kosloski shouted before leading everyone in prayer, after which he and the others gave short speeches.

“For more than a century, the right to unionize has been actively defended by the Catholic Church,” Kosloski said. “Teachers have dedicated their lives to cultivate ours.”

The students walked around the school twice, accompanied the first time by the parents and both times by a handful of administrators. Though disciplinary action had been threatened for any student who left the building during school hours, Principal James Redington smiled and declined comment on what they may face.

“Right now we just want to make sure they are safe,” he said.

Students who had chosen to remain in the school could be seen pushing aside blinds and peering out second-floor windows. Several extra-curricular groups, including the girls basketball team, the swim team and the debate team, had been warned that participating in the walkout would mean forfeiting their right to play in the next contest, Hourigan said, adding that he and the others who helped lead the protest understood the edict and thought it was fair.

Parents paused as the children took their second circuit, waiting in front of the building to applaud them as they came to the front doors and headed back into the school to learn their fate. The administration meted out 2-1/2 hours of detention to be served March 8. The students will get a writing assignment while there.

Attorney Tom O’Connor, who has a daughter in the school and who rigorously tried to prevent the closing of Bishop O’Reilly High School in Kingston last year, shouted, “You did it the right way, kids,” as students went back inside.
On the Web

More photos and video and the diocesan statements are at www.timesleader.com

“We’re supporting our teachers. I love them.”
Brittany Stanczak

Holy Redeemer student

“I never thought I’d see the day the Catholic Church would abandon the common worker.”
-Anna Jesse

Protester and grandmother of Holy Redeemer student