Construction labor unions say they will boycott a dinner planned by the Archdiocese of Baltimore to celebrate the contributions of organized labor, claiming the church does not practice what it preaches.
The Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council, representing about 15,000 local union members, says the Roman Catholic organization "has practiced hypocrisy" in choosing only non-union contractors to build its schools, churches and other projects in recent years.
In contrast, the council said, the Washington archdiocese has had an informal agreement with the unions there for at least 20 years that projects costing more than $500,000 will be built with union labor.
The Washington archdiocese includes the District of Columbia and four Maryland counties.
The Baltimore archdiocese, which spent about $11 million on construction projects last year, denies that it has purposely excluded union contractors.
Building projects are open to competitive bids from any contractor, who must agree to equal employment opportunity rules and to a "just wage" for workers, a spokesman said.
The Rev. William Au, the spokesman, accused the union group of "acting in bad faith" by raising the controversy after the Most Rev. William H. Keeler had agreed to ask the archdiocese Building and Properties Commission to review the matter at its meeting later this month.
The dispute could throw a wet blanket on plans for the Baltimore Metropolitan AFL-CIO to co-sponsor a dinner in October marking the centennial of the papal encyclical, or letter, "Rerum Novarum," which endorsed the formation of unions by workers as instruments of social justice.
"There's no way we can do it if the construction trades ask us not to," said Ernest Grecco, president of the Baltimore Metropolitan AFL-CIO, which includes more than 200 unions and 150,000 unionists.
At issue is the long-standing complaint of the construction unions that the archdiocese has consistently hired cheaper, non-union contractors to build its projects, said William Kaczorowski, president of the building trades council.
Mr. Kaczorowski said he asked the archdiocese building commission in 1984 to agree to use union labor on projects, arguing that non-union contractors were cheaper only because they did not pay for the social benefits, such as health insurance and retirement plans, that union employers are obligated to provide.
"Since then, I've written and met with them, but we always ran into a dead end," he said. Mr. Kaczorowski said he asked former Archbishop William D. Borders to implement a policy similar to the Washington accord with construction unions, but the prelate never took up the issue.
Church officials say they rejected the union's demand for exclusive contracts as unfair.
Instead, the archdiocese stressed open, competitive bidding on projects and a policy that discouraged repeated use of the same builders or architects.
"We feel we are not being anti-union in this," said Father Au. "Non-union workers are our parishioners, too." The archdiocese requires that all its contractors meet standards of social justice toward workers, he emphasized.
Financial decisions on contracts are made "so as to responsibly manage the church's resources," he added.
Archdiocese officials could not say whether any union contractor had been awarded a project in recent years.
Mr. Kaczorowski said the proposed dinner "was a great opportunity for us to bring it up again."
"If the archdiocese doesn't change its policies toward unions, we would not participate in the dinner," he said, and other unions would be informed of the reason. "I doubt there would be anything left for anyone to celebrate."
Mr. Grecco, who still holds out hope for the joint affair, said he hoped the controversy would not jeopardize the Baltimore AFL-CIO's annual Labor Day observance, which has been held for several years in the archdiocese's Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, built entirely by union crafts.