The ongoing dispute between Catholic Healthcare West and the Service Employees International Union may have begun inching toward a resolution last week as the two parties met in their first mediated talks.
The SEIU has been waging a multifront war since last year against the Roman Catholic operator of 47 hospitals in three states.
The two parties sat down with a federal mediator in Sacramento, Calif., on Oct. 14 and 15. They will meet with the mediator on Oct. 20 and 21 to discuss the situation in Los Angeles.
Previous efforts to bring the two together have failed. The dispute has taken on an especially ugly tone, as each side has blasted the other through newspaper advertisements and accused the other of bad faith. The union has even suggested that the hospital consortium is failing to conform with Catholic teaching.
CHW has 45 hospitals in California, and the SEIU represents 400,000 workers in the state. The dispute pits the state's largest hospital operator against its largest labor union, which also represents the most hospital workers.
The SEIU is trying to organize new units of low-level service workers at five CHW hospitals in Sacramento and three in the Los Angeles area: Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center in Hawthorne, St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood and St. Vincent Hospital in Los Angeles.
The Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, is widely regarded as the force who pushed the two toward mediation. On Sept. 3, he issued a Labor Day message urging the two to drop their defensive strategies. "It is time for CHW and SEIU to move beyond the current standoff and to set an example of how conflicts and tensions between management and employees can be resolved through sound Catholic social teaching principles."
Mahony's attempts to calm the rhetoric have met with at least some success. CHW has stopped using its anti-union consulting firms-the Burke Group, based in Malibu, Calif., and Management Science Associates, based in Independence, Mo.
Bernita McTernan, CHW's senior vice president of mission services and human resources, said the company is willing to negotiate with the union as soon as elections are held through a process supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. CHW insists that its workers be able to vote on union representation.