Union Struggles Persist

The issuance of a joint statement in 2009 by Catholic hospitals and labor unions about the right of workers to organize is still waiting for its first application, according to a participant in the drafting of the document. The statement, “Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Catholic Health Care and Unions,” was prepared by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Health Association, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the Service Employees International Union. Jerry Shea, assistant to the president at the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said the document first became sidetracked when participants agreed to hold back its release until closer to Labor Day 2009. By then, Shea added, the initiative was further sidelined as the nation—and some of the key participants in crafting the statement—became embroiled in a debate on the merits of health care reform legislation.

The document calls on unions and employers to respect “each other’s mission and legitimacy” and to pledge not to “demean or undermine each other’s institutions, leaders, representatives, effectiveness or motives.” Both sides also must be “dedicated to ensuring that organizing campaigns will not disturb patients or interfere with the delivery of patient care.”

Shea said that “Respecting the Just Rights of Workers” may yet prove to be useful. “Unions complained about it because it didn’t go far enough. Hospitals complained because it went too far. So we must have done something right,” he said.

At the annual meeting of the Catholic Labor Network in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 12, participants were told that health care organizing continues at Catholic institutions, although not necessarily under the tenets laid out by “Respecting the Just Rights of Workers.”

Marie Puleo, a Franciscan sister who is senior vice president of mission for Steward Healthcare System, a for-profit chain that runs six Catholic hospitals in Massachusetts, outlined the positive working relationship the chain has with S.E.I.U. Both the hospitals and the union consider as the enemy not each other but the current health care system, she said.

Relations are not as stable at other health care sites around the country where management and labor square off. Nina Bugbee, a staff representative for a Teamsters local representing hospital workers at Genesys Regional Medical Center in Flint, Mich., and a former nurse at the hospital, said workers and management enjoyed a good relationship for about six years until executives at Ascension Health, the nation’s largest Catholic hospital chain, “decided two things: The profits weren’t big enough at Genesys, and they were going to put the unions in their proper place.”

That set off, according to Bugbee, a series of anti-union moves by hospital management, which in turn brought a series of countermoves by the union and its allies, including the publication last year by Interfaith Worker Justice of “Ascension Health: A Fall From Grace—Workers’ Rights Abuses at Ascension Health’s Michigan Hospitals.”

Bugbee said the tactic that finally got management’s attention was the Teamsters’ backing of a rival hospital’s building bid. Both parties came back to the bargaining table. The nurses eventually agreed to concessions that led to a new contract, but Bugbee claimed that even with the contract, “morale is the lowest it’s ever been.”

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