Bill Knight - July 16

Macomb, IL – An unprecedented advance in labor-management relations at Catholic hospitals and other health-care facilities in the United States could result from a new agreement between labor leaders and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But the written understanding is a set of guidelines and not an enforceable document, conceded Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., who announced the agreement in an appearance with AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney and Service Employees local leader Dennis Rivera.

Still, employees at more than 600 U.S. hospitals and other institutions nationwide must see "good news" in the action spelling out that workers should be able to choose whether or not to unionize.

In Illinois, the state's Catholic Health Association lists 43 hospitals and dozens of other operations, from assisted-living facilities to hospice programs. Some hospitals include OSF St. Francis, with locations in Monmouth, Galesburg and Peoria. Workers in different departments at such medical centers have had interest in organizing and affiliating with several labor unions.

The document, "Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Catholic Health Care and Unions," establishes seven principles ensuring workers can make informed decisions without undue influence or pressure: respect, equal access to information, truthful and balanced communications, pressure-free environment, a fair and expeditious process, meaningful enforcement of the local agreement, and honoring employee decisions.

Teachers union president Randi Weingarten said, "The [Bishops have] taken a bold step toward a new and positive way of thinking about labor-management relations that everyone - workers, unions and administrators - can use as a strong guidance. The process will create an atmosphere where employees will no longer face threats and intimidation when they consider forming a union."

Ideally, the principles - derived from Catholic social teaching - will help Catholic hospital administrators practice what they preach, but some are skeptical. Indeed, the principles aren't close to what's been happening at Catholic hospitals such as the St. Joseph system in California or Resurrection in Chicago.

At St. Joseph's, workers have been subjected to anti-labor activities that clearly violate church teachings, according to Joe Holland of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice. Quoting a 2008 report, he said, "Supervisors made it quite clear that St. Joseph Health System was anti-union and that they expected workers loyal to the system to be anti-union as well."

St. Joe's actions were so bad that even the Bush administration's NLRB last summer issued a complaint citing numerous examples of illegal employee intimidation.

Catholic hospital management succumbed to the temptations posed by anti-union consultants such as the Burke Group, insiders say. Burke's web site brags of ensuring "Union Free workplaces." A California priest who offered to arbitrate that conflict, Monsignor John Brenkle, said the religious order that runs that system, the 200-member Sisters of St. Joseph, was influenced by advisers and slipped in to an anti-worker stance.

In Chicago, the ongoing effort by thousands of workers at Resurrection to organize with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees could continue if management ignores the Bishops.

But some hope that the Bishops will pressure Catholic hospital administrators to abide by the principles. They could use better public relations. For instance, although about one-fourth of Illinois' hospitals are Catholic, they've been criticized for refusing to dispense medicine some say is against church teaching, avoiding their obligation to provide health care to the poor and more.

However, others choose to have faith in the new direction.
Candice Owley, a registered nurse and chair of the teachers' health-care sector, said, "The bishops and Catholic health care showed extraordinary leadership in shaping this document, which levels the playing field to prevent conflict, tension and misinformation that can mire an organizing campaign."

Finally, there seems to be some hope in the air, a sense of good tidings and good timing.

In fact, July 16 is the Catholic Church's feast day for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, celebrating Mary as not just the patron saint of the Americas, but also her roles bridging concerns of both health-care providers and regular working people, as she's also known as the Comforter of the Afflicted, Healing Balm of Integrity, Health of the Sick, Mirror of Justice, My Body's Healing, Our Lady of Good Remedy, and Protectress from All Hurt.