The US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has called upon Borgess Medical Center of Kalamazoo, Michigan, to appear before a hearing to respond to accusations of union-busting activity. The charges describe actions taken in the course of contract negotiations with the Michigan Nurses Association (MNA), the union representing nurses employed at the center. Borgess is a member of Ascension Health Network, the largest Catholic Healthcare chain in the United States. (Ascension is sponsored by an alliance of the Daughters of Charity, the Congregation of St. Joseph, and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.)
MNA activists believe that Borgess management is using the current negotiations to try to weaken or beak the union. According to the NLRB complaint, among other Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs):
- Borgess CEO Paul Spaude threatened employees that if they failed to come to terms with the company and Borgess locked them out, they could permanently lose their jobs.
- One Borgess assistant director “coercively interrogated employees about their union membership, activities, and sympathies.”
- Another assistant director “solicited employees to sign a petition for decertification of the union.”
Strained labor relations between nurses and management at Borgess have marked most of 2010 – and not just at Borgess. Other Ascension facilities in Michigan reported similar issues, prompting Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) – an ecumenical organization of worker advocates – to send a fact-finding mission to speak with workers at three Ascension-affiliated Michigan hospitals and to Ascension corporate management in St. Louis.
In July the fact-finding committee, headed by Dominican Sister (and nurse) Monica McGloin, issued the report “A Fall From Grace: Workers’ Rights Abuses at Ascension Health’s Michigan Operations.” Having interviewed numerous employees at the three hospitals, they found certain common themes. Beyond notable unfair labor practices like those noted above, there was a common sentiment among the nurses that once- positive labor-management relations had soured. They felt that the current management of the hospitals was more concerned with increased income than they were about the welfare of their nurses or their patients. Many suggested that the change had occurred since their takeover by Ascension. “The workers felt that under the new administration their voices were not heard,” Sister McGloin told me later. (The IWJ panel said that Ascension management did not respond to their repeated requests for a meeting.)
The report concluded:
As a result of this fact-finding process, the delegation members are convinced that the three hospitals are engaging in comprehensive, coordinated anti-union activities aimed, at best, to dramatically diminish the working conditions and living standards of Ascension’s highly dedicated, unionized Michigan work force; and, at worst, to break the unions altogether. In either case, Ascension is clearly failing to abide by Catholic Social Teachings on the rights of workers.
Setting aside the ULP charges cited above, what substantive issues separate the Nurses and Borgess at the bargaining table? Driving a hard bargain is not necessarily a violation of Catholic social teaching. I approached the union and Borgess to ask what issues were in contention.
“We haven’t even had a fight on money yet,” said Ken Zinn, a representative of the MNA’s parent union, National Nurses United, in an October interview. “This is about their collective voice on patient care. Management and Labor had worked together since the 1970s to build a quality care model of patient care at Borgess. The American Nurses’ Assocation Code of Ethics is incorporated in the contract! The union contract guarantees the nurses a seat on patient care committees. Now Borgess management is demanding to remove all that from the collective bargaining agreement.”
This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the dispute. Conventional (secular) wisdom holds that unions exist only to fight employers in order to obtain better wages, benefits and working conditions for their members. Catholic social thought, though, teaches that this is only one of several important functions performed by labor unions.
Indeed, in the founding document of modern Catholic social teaching, Rerum Novarum (1891), Leo XIII hoped that instead labor unions could serve to “draw the two classes closer together” and even to “promot[e] the advancement of art” in much the way the medieval guilds had done. The social encyclicals on labor dare to propose that workers have something to contribute to improving the quality of their product, and that labor unions can serve as an excellent channel to work with the employer toward this end.
In fact, if I were to sit down and imagine what a Catholic model of labor relations looked like, I might come up with something that incorporated professional ethics and that guaranteed nurses a voice in patient care decisions. And if I were a Catholic Health Care institution seeking to evangelize the world regarding Catholic social principles, I would celebrate such practices at my hospital – not seek to abolish them.
I tried to ask the Borgess Medical Center PR department whether the charges in the labor board complaints were valid; whether Borgess was indeed asking the union to give up contractual guarantees of participation in patient care committees; and how Borgess believed labor relations at a Catholic Health Care institution differed from those at a secular institution. Borgess was unwilling to address specific questions. In response to this inquiry I received only what seemed to be an old statement in response to the IWJ report. The statement attacked the credibility of “IWJ’s so-called ‘investigation’ of Ascension Health,” and asserted that “Borgess has always been guided by Catholic social teaching.” As for the labor board complaint and bargaining table issues? “We have nothing more to add.”