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Catholic hospital organization signs accord with union

NCR Staff
Los Angeles

After four years of acrimony and strikes, of public charges and countercharges using radio and newspaper advertising, a one-year peace accord was signed April 6 between Catholic Healthcare West, which owns 48 hospitals, and the Service Employees International Union.

The agreement covers non-nursing staff in 45 hospitals in two states, California and Nevada.

When peace did emerge from four months of resumed talks that included behind-the-scenes pressure from Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and San Francisco Archbishop William Levada, both sides expressed hope, but beyond generalities, neither side had much to say.

A joint news release stated that the new guidelines “define how the two organizations will relate to each other in any organizing efforts. We are delighted that both organizations are putting the past behind us.”

The union’s Steve Trossman said, “The thing is that on both sides we’re not looking at this as the last step in a four-year conflict but the first step in a new relationship as we try to change the way things are done.”

Said Catholic Healthcare West spokesperson Joyce Hawthorne, “I think we decided it’s probably in our best interests to work with SEIU. We signed a similar agreement with the California Nurses Association in February. We felt this was something that would benefit both of us if we went about it the right way.”

This new stance is a far cry from the situation that existed in mid-July 1999, when their battling reached something of a crescendo and any likelihood of peaceful negotiation collapsed.

The Service Employees International Union, an aggressive union with a penchant for publicity-attracting tactics, is best known for its street-blocking, traffic-disrupting Justice for Janitors campaigns in Los Angeles and Washington. In targeting Catholic hospitals, the union displayed a canny sense of the bind Catholic hospitals are in, given the pro-union stance of Catholic social justice teaching.

Catholic Healthcare West, the nation’s seventh largest not-for-profit health care system, and the largest in the West, represents the combined hospitals of nine religious orders. Like all hospitals in the United States, Catholic Healthcare West is in a cost-and-profits squeeze. The network quadrupled in size in a decade, has more than $6 billion in assets, yet had a $310 million operating loss in 1999.

Some 10 percent of U.S. hospitals are run by Catholic organizations.

The strongest building block for harmony in this new agreement, after allowing employees the right to organize without interference, is a hospital-union pledge to work together. Outside the hospitals, the newly teamed twosome will lobby on health care needs and immigrants’ rights, and inside the hospitals will cooperate on training programs and grievance resolution.

That’s a complete change from the four years of battles between the union and Catholic Healthcare West that created headlines and newscasts up and down California -- and served to educate the public through news stories that dealt with Catholic social justice teaching. At the same time, the battles placed women religious, who in many cases have ceded control over their hospitals to lay management, in something approaching a no-win situation.

The Catholic hospitals were accused of “demonizing” the unions and of hiring anti-labor management teams to fight off organizers and the angry and disruptive strike tactics and noisy demonstrations of the union.

The tide turned, if slowly in the second half of 1999.

In July of that year, 3,000 Catholic activists in Los Angeles for the National Catholic Gathering for Jubilee Justice, threw their weight behind the union as AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney breakfasted with Catholic “labor priest” Msgr. George Higgins, who’d already said, “If the sisters are hiring a [management] firm that is anti-union, they’re wrong.”

The sisters in Catholic Healthcare West management retaliated by accusing the union of organizing a “corporate campaign” against the hospitals and engaging in disruptive practices. They contended the hospitals were simply defending their employees’ right to choose.

The standoff satisfied no one.

The next month, August 1999, saw the fruition of a two-year drive led by Mercy Sr. Mary Roch Rocklage, CEO of the St. Louis-based Mercy Health System, for a subcommittee of the U.S. bishops’ Domestic Policy Committee to develop a working paper on “just workplace” principles and practices.

Representatives of the Catholic Health Association, Catholic hospital management, unions and the bishops produced a draft that stated, “When workers are serious about organizing, it seems 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.”

It has taken 16 months for Catholic Healthcare West and the union to reach that point. Serious negotiations have been underway since just before Christmas.

Not part of the paper contract, but a key part of the understanding across the negotiating table is what the combined lobbying might of Catholic hospitals and the union could achieve politically.

The state of California controls hundreds of millions of dollars in seismic retrofit funds to ward off the worst from earthquakes, and channels billions more into health care services for the poor. It is in the interests of both the union and Catholic Healthcare West to persuade the state to direct those monies to nonprofit hospitals.

For the patient and the employee, too, there is some glimmer of hope. Within the hospitals, the union states, key factors in almost every strike in the past four years have centered on the issues of short staffing and workload. For nursing and non-nursing staff, this is a major bone of contention. Under the new agreement, if there’s now a dispute on staffing, it will go to an outside health expert arbiter.

Meanwhile, with the ink barely dry, the union moved to seek representation at St. Bernardine’s Hospital in San Bernardino, Calif. Both sides will have their say, but both anticipate what is described in the bishops’ “Principles and Practices for a Fair and Just Workplace for Catholic Health Care”: “a civil, focused and businesslike dialogue.”

Catholic Healthcare West history

Catholic Healthcare West was founded in 1986 in a merger of 12 facilities operated by the Sisters of Mercy of Auburn and of Burlingame, Calif. The Mercys were subsequently joined by the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Mich.; Daughters of Charity, Province of the West; Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Houston; Dominican Sisters of San Rafael, Calif.; Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, Kenosha, Wis.; Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Frankfort, Ill.; and the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity of Redwood City, Calif.

The Service Employees International Union began in 1921 organizing janitors as the Building Service Employees International Union. It is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, represents 1.2 million workers, including 400,000 in California, 200,000 of them health care employees. The SEIU has doubled in size in 15 years and is the country’s third-largest and fastest growing union.

Arthur Jones’ e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, April 20, 2001