Religious employers don't always practice what they preach

By DON McINTOSH, Staff Reporter

(Part Two)

In their role as advocates for the poor, religious leaders and labor leaders often find they are natural allies. But in their role as employers, churches have a re- lationship with unions that's sometimes rocky, sometimes downright antagonistic.

Religious workers such as priests and nuns can't legally unionize, but church office workers, some lay teachers at church schools, and workers at church-affiliated hospitals, nursing homes, and day care centers can. Many have joined unions - or tried to.

In church-owned health care, tensions frequently heat up around the right to organize. The norm - throughout the health care industry - is vigorous opposition to unions. And volumes of anecdotal experience suggest, as two Vanderbilt University sociologists concluded in an AFL-CIO-commissioned study, anti-union campaigns at Catholic hospitals are indistinguishable from anti-union campaigns in the corporate world. It's no mystery as to why.

To respond to union organizing drives, they hire the same consulting firms, companies that specialize in "union avoidance."

Still, the fact that religious hospitals are not noticeably friendlier to unions is galling to many union organizers, who want hospitals to live up to the pronouncements of the churches with which they're affiliated.

Most national church bodies are unequivocal on the right of workers to form unions, and issue statements periodically reaffirming the principle.

"The Church fully supports the right of workers to form unions," declared the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in one of several such statements. "No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity first; therefore we firmly oppose organized efforts to prevent workers from organizing."

These principles seem all but forgotten when organizers come calling at church hospitals.

A number of churches operate hospitals, but the Catholic Church has by far the largest contingent - The Catholic Health Association of the United States claims over 2,000 member organizations.

The Roman Catholic Church has supported union struggles since the establishment of "Catholic social teaching" in an 1891 letter from Pope Leo XIII to all the bishops, calling for decent wages and other reforms of capitalism. "The Catholic Church was historically the church of the immigrant, of the blue collar," said David Leslie, executive director of the interfaith group Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. "Being with people who struggled to make ends meet was the calling of the church."

The relationship between unions and the Catholic Church was stronger 30 or 40 years ago, Leslie said, when it was led by a generation of outspoken religious leaders, particularly bishops, who had come of age during a surge in union organizing. The relationship faded, Leslie said, as that generation passed on and unions too lost the excitement of the newly organized.

Meanwhile, Catholic health care began to undergo transformation. Historically, while the male hierarchy of priests and bishops delivered sermons and administered sacraments, the nuns, also known as "women religious," oversaw the church's good works - educating the young and caring for the poor and the sick. But even more than the priesthood, the ranks of women religious have aged and diminished in number, at the same time that the hospitals they oversee grew enormously.

Where a generation ago, it might not have been uncommon to see sisters roaming the halls comforting the afflicted, today they have largely pulled out of the day-to-day administration. Increasingly, though hospitals are still owned by religious institutions, they're managed by people who may have no formal church commitment - professional managers drawn from the corporate world.

And like their peers in other industries, these corporate managers are prone to hire anti-union consultants to keep unions out, often with great success.

With weak labor laws offering pro-union workers little protection from hostile managers, unions lose many large, expensive organizing campaigns at church-owned hospitals, or win at others only to spend years fighting for a contract. Where union organizers get hospital management to commit to neutrality, the union win-rate improves substantially.

To get the Catholic Church to comply with its own pronouncements on the right to organize, conversations were initiated at the highest levels by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, a practicing Catholic with close relationships to several Catholic bishops.

In January 1998 the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops convened a subcommittee to address the issue, which included representatives from AFL-CIO and the Catholic Health Association. The hope was that they would develop a set of guidelines for labor/management relationships. After meeting a year and a half, the group released a working paper in August 1999 entitled, "A Fair and Just Workplace: Principles and Practices for Catholic Health Care," available on the web at

Andy Levin, director of organizing for the national AFL-CIO, described the document as "a good start, a good-faith effort to get dialogue going," but said it needs to be strengthened. While it reaffirms the right of workers to organize, it fails to provide any specific guidelines on how management should respond to union campaigns. As part of the continuing dialogue, both sides were to take the document back to their members for feedback.

Within the church, it proved controversial. Some members of the women religious orders that own the hospitals, see unionization as a potential impediment to their mission of healing the sick.

Though they are members of autonomous women's organizations chartered by the pope, nuns often feel subordinate to the male clergy. Here they've built up this vast network of charitable institutions, the most successful economic entity within the Catholic Church, and now the all-male hierarchy is beginning to criticize how they're run. On the other hand, some priests and bishops are hearing directly from workers at Catholic institutions about fear and intimidation from management, and are moved to speak out, only to find that their pronouncements have moral force but no binding effect, since the sisters aren't answerable to local bishops.

Meanwhile, the union movement found the document didn't change how management reacted to union campaigns. To find out what, if any, impact "A Fair and Just Workplace" had, the AFL-CIO organized hearings in four cities in March and April 2000: Chicago, New York, Miami and Seattle. The hearings were not intended as a way to publicly embarrass the church, and the AFL-CIO made no attempt to publicize the results. Rather, they were part of the federation's ongoing dialogue with the church. At the Seattle hearing, over a dozen workers from California, Oregon and Washington testified, describing misinformation, intimidation, coercion, illegal firings, and on-the-job discrimination.

AFL-CIO officers heard about a massive campaign by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) at hospitals in Sacramento and Los Angeles operated by Catholic Healthcare West. Catholic Healthcare West is California's largest hospital system, with 45 hospitals sponsored by nine separate orders of nuns.

For advice on how to respond to the union drive, Catholic Healthcare West hired the "union avoidance" consulting firms Management Sciences Associates and the Burke Group. As the Jan. 27, 2000 union election approached, managers conducted surveillance of union supporters, tore union literature from hospital bulletin boards, forbade discussion of the union at work, disciplined workers for speaking in favor of a union, discriminated against union supporters, interrogated employees about how they would vote, and called workers away from patient care duties to attend mandatory anti-union meetings.

On election day, the majority of workers voted not to unionize. A March 2000 report by a state commission formed by the speaker of the California Assembly agreed that the union loss was a product of systematic management abuses.

In Yakima, Wash., SEIU District 1199NW won a September 1998 election to represent workers at a hospital run by the Sisters of Providence. Nearly two years later, workers still don't have a contract. Providence Yakima Medical Center employs a notorious union-busting firm, American Consulting Group, which, under its former name West Coast Industrial Relations, once threatened to kill a union negotiator, and was condemned by the City Council of Buffalo, New York, after a campaign there.

The union campaign has won support of local clergy, including parish priest Roberto Saenz, who was moved to declare: "It's shameful that Providence Yakima hospital calls itself a Catholic hospital, but they are not behaving according to the teachings of the Catholic Church."

"The priests are the ones who actually talk to parishioners," said Emily Van Bronkhorst, vice president of SEIU District 1199. "And they're moved by the fact that the poorest people in Yakima are those working for Providence." Housekeeping employees who have been at the hospital five years earn less than $8 an hour, Van Bronkhorst said, and cannot afford child care for their children.

In early 1999, SEIU Local 49 campaigned to organize a Sisters of Providence hospital in Portland. Sarah Schneider, then an organizer who worked on that campaign, described widespread concern among employees that the hospital was losing its soul under its new "corporate-style" management, and was acting like a for-profit company. Certified Nurse Assistants there earned $9 an hour. Organizers appealed to clergy in the Archdiocese of Portland for support, and in April 1999 two dozen local parish priests signed a letter calling for the hospital to adopt a position of neutrality. But to no avail - the hospital ran a classic anti-union campaign engineered by Management Science Associates, the same consulting firm that kept out the SEIU at Catholic Healthcare West and at Vancouver's SW Washington Medical Center.

Support for the union withered under the opposition of management, and by the end of May, the campaign was dead on arrival.

Seven months later, the Presbyterial Council, a local advisory body, recommended by a 11-10 vote that the Archdiocese of Portland adopt a set of principles on labor relations that would oppose vigorous opposition to unionization. But without the urgency of an existing union campaign, the decision, in the hands of Archbishop John Vlazny, appears to be in limbo.

Not all Catholic hospitals resist all unions. Cherry Harris, stationary coordinator for Operating Engineers Local 701 in Gladstone, described no special difficulty organizing at church-affiliated hospitals. Local 701 represents small units of highly-skilled workers.

Office workers at the church's other units are also unionized. At the Archdiocese of Portland and the Oregon Catholic Press, Office and Professional Employees Local 11 has represented about four dozen workers for decades without significant conflict.

It's not as clear that teachers at church-owned private schools have the right to unionize. In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled schools could block unionizing attempts if they could show that their teachers were religious workers.

At one time the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) had a division for teachers at private church-affiliated schools, but those teachers largely split from the union over its political opposition to government vouchers for private schools. Now, when parochial school teachers call to ask about organizing, AFT Organizing Director Phil Kugler tells them to proceed only if they think school management won't oppose it; AFT won't get involved.

Sister Barbara Pfarr of the Sisters of Notre Dame heads the Religious Employers Project of the National Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice. For the last three years, it's been her full-time job to convince religious institutions that fighting union organizing campaigns is contrary to established church values. Pfarr tells of one hospital in New Jersey in which the board of directors refused to settle a bitter strike. The leadership of the convent that owned the hospital intervened, reconstituted the board, and forced a settlement.

"It's the responsibility of the sponsors to make sure that Catholic values are upheld throughout the institution," Pfarr said.

The Catholic Church wouldn't hesitate to step in if Catholic hospitals were performing abortions or refusing to serve the poor, she argues. [Seattle's Swedish Hospital, for example, stopped providing abortion services after it was acquired by the Sisters of Providence.] So too, Pfarr says, must the church step in when its hospitals are fighting union campaigns.

Union organizers say that until churches forbid the kind of union-busting tactics that many hospitals are currently employing, there can be no assumption that church institutions will be any more neutral than corporations. Instead, unions will have to rely on the same full-bore campaigns they use elsewhere, using economic clout of union health trusts and community support as leverage, and treating church institutions like any other employer.

August 4, 2000 issue

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