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Working paper aims for just workplace

NCR Staff

In a Washington conference room Aug. 26, a cautiously optimistic working group had just released “Principles and Practices for a Fair and Just Workplace for Catholic Health Care.”

On the same day, but an hour earlier, nurses at Catholic Healthcare West-owned Bakersfield Memorial Hospital in California walked off the job. The Bakersfield situation was a classic example of a recurrent eruption -- unions (in this case the California Nurses Association) and Catholic hospital managements squaring off.

The USCC Domestic Policy Committee of the U.S. Catholic Conference had developed the “working paper” for just such a situation, but it was “not aimed at any ongoing dispute,” said committee member Sister of Mercy Mary Roch Rocklage.

In was Rocklage’s idea two years ago to have the bishops’ committee develop a paper on “just workplace” principles and practices that would help. As she said Aug. 26, it is vital “to create an environment in which the workers were free to choose, not coerced by labor or management.” The intention, said Rocklage, president and CEO of the Mercy Health System, St. Louis, is for unions and hospitals to agree on “the rules of engagement.”

The rules, or at least questions that could be used to determine rules at the local level, emerged from a subcommittee created by Bishop William Skylstad, the bishops’ domestic social policy chair at the time. The subcommittee included representatives of the Catholic Health Association, Catholic hospital management and unions, and bishops.

Assessing the result at the Washington meeting, the AFL-CIO’s Gerard Shea, one of the participants, said that while there was not agreement on some of the “more neuralgic” points, Rocklage was offering “a different paradigm, a sharp contrast to adversarial labor-management relations.”

The draft states that “when workers are serious about organizing, it seems that the best approach requires a civil, focused, businesslike dialogue between management and union on just how the workers’ right to decide will be respected by both parties.” The sort of key questions that ought to be posed, the draft continues, include those addressed to both management and labor: “What initiatives and restraints are appropriate during an organizing campaign? What tactics should you avoid? What measures are you willing to take to ensure that any elections are truly free and fair and take place in a reasonable period of time?”

The draft suggests that management be asked why they hire consultants, and whether managers and consultants will follow guidelines based on Catholic social teaching. Management should be asked if it is prepared to live “with an outcome where workers decide to be represented by a union.”

The working paper suggests that unions be asked if they are prepared to meet Catholic social teaching guidelines, accept the workers’ decision if they decide against unionization, and refrain from further organizing “for a reasonable period.”

The draft document follows through: “If workers choose not to organize,” it asks, “how will management respond to workers’ rights to participate in decisions affecting their lives and livelihood?” And if workers do unionize, unions are asked to spell out how the union will guarantee that the Catholic health care mission will remain central to the institution and not be compromised.

Earlier this summer, Rocklage told NCR, “Our stance continues to be that the church has said that for a just workplace, the employees should have an appropriate voice in the decisions that affect them. And they also have the right to freely choose. It is their choice.

“We fail -- the unions fail and management fails -- to create an environment that is open enough and free enough for the workers to freely vote. It’s too antagonistic,” said Rocklage. “It starts out that way. What happens is that when we start blasting one another, it gets terrible.”

The creators of the working paper want to avoid that.

Meanwhile, in Bakersfield, where the negotiations have escalated to the air waves with ads on local radio stations, Catholic Healthcare West’s John Omel of the Central California region issued a statement saying that negotiations failed “despite several offers by the hospital to increase base salaries, add education days and make concessions on management rights.”

The California Nurses Association’s Rose Anne DeMoro, on the other hand, told NCR that the issues were staffing levels, poor patient coverage, a reliance on 24-hour shifts and the need for the nurses to have a voice in developments surrounding the probable closing of one of the two Bakersfield hospitals in the Catholic Healthcare West system.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999