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Nuns’ resistance to unions belies legacy

The bitter dispute between Catholic hospitals run by religious orders and the union seeking to organize hospital workers is unsettling not only for the invective that has been hurled over the barricades but also because the controversy seems such a departure from the nuns’ usual mission and spirit.

It has been difficult in the past and in the current matter involving Catholic Healthcare West, to understand the fierce opposition to unions by women religious who, in other circumstances, would be the most ardent champions of workers’ rights, including the right to organize.

Those in charge of the hospital system in question may argue that they are fostering an open environment where employees are free to choose, but the language of their own literature says otherwise. Three members of the Daughters of Charity signed onto a letter in April urging employees to “please say no” to the union’s “meaningless rhetoric. ... To introduce a third party into our family ... would be disruptive and may negatively impact our good working relationship.”

Another 10 nuns at a different medical center signed a letter warning that a union would “be very detrimental to the hospital, our patients and to each of you.”

Further, the hiring of firms widely regarded as union busters is a clear indication of intent and belies the “neutrality” the hospital administrators would like us to believe they are maintaining.

Michael Erne, president and CEO of Catholic Healthcare West’s Sacramento region, was refreshingly candid when he said straight out that he is opposed to the union coming in.

Perhaps, as some speculate, the religious orders view unions as an affront to their mission and history. After all, nuns might reasonably ask, who can be expected to run a just workplace if not a religious order?

Or maybe religious orders, formed in a church where secrecy is too often the method of operating, find disconcerting the openness and accountability required when unions represent workers.

No doubt part of the resistance to unions also stems from the fact that the once intimate circumstance of religious orders running their hospitals has changed dramatically in recent years. The mission and identity of those orders now have to accommodate independent boards, a health care system in continuous and wild flux and outside consultants whose formulas for institutional success would offer little inspiration for the mission of religious orders.

In short, hospitals run by religious today by necessity have become huge businesses subject to bottom-line pressures that militate against the sense of family and collaborative processes that may have been the hallmark of these institutions in a simpler time.

Unions are not a sign of failure, nor are they necessarily a reaction against actual injustice in the workplace. They are a manifestation of a deep human instinct -- a need to gather around common interests. The right to organize is deeply embedded in the last century of Catholic social thought, in teachings that have gained wide acceptance and from which there has been little dissent.

There is a profound common sense, extracted from the experience of workers in the modern world, that threads through the teachings.

As the U.S. bishops note in “Economic Justice for All”: “Even if most injustice and exploitation were removed, unions would still have a legitimate place. They are the normal voice of labor, necessary to organize social life for the common good.”

Perhaps it is time for the nuns to seek other counsel and look at other models of cooperation between corporate entities and unions. They are rare, but they do exist, even in the health care field in California.

Religious orders have a breathtaking legacy of works of compassion, mercy and justice. And no other constituency does more today to bring social justice and healing to the weary and fractured corners of our globe than women religious. The fight with workers who want to organize is an inexplicable deviation from that legacy. A correction in course is long overdue.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998