Recent union elections at Catholic Healthcare West hospitals in California ended up more in favor of the West Coast's largest hospital operator than its largest union, the Service Employees International Union.
Though SEIU won four elections and CHW only three, the elections CHW won involved twice as many employees.
Since 1997, the SEIU has been conducting a highly public campaign, sometimes bordering on vilification, to force CHW to recognize union locals at five hospitals in the Sacramento region, two hospitals in the Los Angeles area AND SEVERAL others in nearby areas.
This long-running dispute had evolved into a mutual antagonism. The union claimed that the San Francisco-based hospital company's negotiating position was inconsistent with Roman Catholic social teachings, while CHW believed the SEIU was trying to pull one over on its loyal employees.
Now that the National Labor Relations Board elections are over, there is at least some evidence of how CHW hospital workers feel.
The union lost in a Jan. 27 election at Mercy Sacramento, the hospital system that comprises all five CHW hospitals in the Sacramento area.
The vote against the union in the technical unit was 305-193. (An additional 25 votes were challenged, but in a unit of 628 eligible voters, that will not change the result.)
In the service unit in Sacramento, the vote was 701-598 against unionization. There were 116 challenged ballots out of 1,622 eligible voters. It's possible, but unlikely, that the result will be overturned by the NLRB.
In one of the Los Angeles-area units, the union won; in the second Los Angeles-area unit, it lost.
At Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center in Hawthorne and St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, technical employees on Feb. 23 voted 146-103 in favor of joining SEIU Local 399. Service and maintenance employees at the two hospitals voted the union down, 363-199, on March 22 and 23.
The SEIU was frustrated by CHW's staunch refusal to permit the union to organize its employees without holding full-fledged elections. Unions generally feel that the statutory obligations in the laborious and expensive NLRB process load the dice against them. The SEIU would have preferred that CHW recognized it through a card check, whereby an employer voluntarily recognizes a union after a majority of employees sign cards saying they want union representation.
But CHW insisted on elections.
"It's a philosophical stance we've taken, that employees have a right to vote," said Bernita McTernan, CHW's senior vice president of mission services and human resources. "The NLRB is a framework that's fair and just. We in no way want to manipulate the NLRB rules."
CHW felt strongly enough that it bought a full-page advertisement that appeared July 4 last year in the Los Angeles Times. It pictured Americans in a voting booth. The text read: "On this anniversary of the birth of freedom, a group of Americans has yet to exercise one of their most fundamental rights--the right to vote. They're the employees of St. Francis and Robert F. Kennedy Medical Centers."
The struggle over unionization has caused pain within the CHW, especially among its nine sponsoring congregations. Like other Catholic providers, CHW views itself as strongly driven by ministry. The congregations, their hired corporate managers and the employees are all supposed to be on the same mission: to carry Christ's healing ministry to the world. An independent labor union's involvement deflects attention and loyalty from the mission, many Catholic sisters and managers believe.
Before the recent votes, CHW already recognized 18 collective bargaining units at its 48 hospitals. The militant California Nurses Association represents nurses at many of CHW's Northern California hospitals, including the Mercy Sacramento group. And the SEIU represents workers at other hospitals.
At CHW, as at most Catholic ministries, the number of nuns is dwindling. About 150 sisters are now active in a company with 45,000 employees. CHW works hard to imbue the system's lay leaders with its Catholic values.
That's one reason that CHW sisters and lay leaders were appalled by the SEIU's tactics. The SEIU, with other unions, has formed an alliance with the pro-labor wing of the Catholic church. This alliance has declared that Catholic healthcare providers that try to keep unions at bay are contravening a century of Catholic social teaching.
The alliance includes sisters from the social activist tradition around the country. Many of them have started ministries for the poor or gone to jail for civil disobedience. The alliance also includes Catholic intellectuals, such as Monsignor George Higginscheck, former director of the Social Action Department of the U.S. Catholic Conference, and many Catholic laypeople who are active in community organizing and social justice issues.
The SEIU unleashed a nonstop barrage of attacks on CHW, including press releases, staged events and newspaper ads, accusing the system of mistreating its workers and sabotaging the union campaign. "Despite Catholic social teachings that support workers' freedom to organize, CHW has led an intensive pressure campaign against employees," the SEIU wrote in one release. "CHW supervisors--who control schedules, promotions and working conditions--have been trained by outside consultants to pressure employees not to form a union."
Mary Kay Henry, lead SEIU organizer on the West Coast, said the union is frustrated by CHW's refusal to acknowledge that workers' grievances are legitimate, and that Catholic social teaching supports workers' right to organize.
The system, she claimed, is run by businesspeople who make decisions without direct advice from sponsoring congregations. "The religious community is not in the budget debates, not in the marketing debates. It's a parallel reporting structure," she said.
Because the sisters haven't engaged the union directly, labor organizers haven't gotten the traction they expected on the issue of Catholic social teaching.
"We gave them a choice; they made a choice to resist," Henry said firmly. "We believe they provoked the campaign against them. They hired security firms, they intimidated organizers, they forced people to attend anti-union meetings, they hired union-busting consultants."
In letters to the Sacramento Bee after the Jan. 27 election, however, some Mercy employees disputed the SEIU's allegation that they'd been intimidated. "I resent SEIU's charge of interference and intimidation by Mercy management," wrote Suzette Walker. "I have always been treated with respect and dignity by management . . . SEIU failed to recognize a very basic fact: At Mercy we are not employee and employer--many of us feel as if we are a family."
But admitting clerk Henrietta Reyes told the newspaper in an interview that "there was a lot of intimidation. It even got worse in the last couple of weeks--constant fliers, bosses pulling us aside."
The substantial number of votes in favor of the union makes it unlikely that organizers will pack their bags and leave. Glenn Goldstein, the SEIU's lead organizer in Sacramento, said it's just a matter of time before the union wins. Under NLRB rules, the union must wait a year before filing another election request.
The protracted conflict between the union and a regional Catholic healthcare company has garnered national attention within the church and social justice circles. Last October, the weekend before the national AFL-CIO conference in Los Angeles, a group called the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice put on a two-day symposium to explore where America's various religious traditions intersect in social justice teachings and how those teachings relate to organized labor. The Catholic contingent was strongly represented.
Cardinal Roger Mahony, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, delivered the keynote address, reviewing the history of Catholic teachings on work and the labor movement. He concluded that "historically, the Catholic Church has stood with the workers." He went on to say that neither the church nor the labor movement has a claim on moral purity in this regard. "The church cannot simply become a cheerleader for the labor unions. That would diminish a complex tradition into sound bites," he said.
Mahony pushed CHW and the SEIU to sit down with a federal mediator last October to resolve some of their differences (Oct. 18, 1999, p. 38). Those talks failed to produce a breakthrough.
On Nov. 18, 1999, Mahony released a statement calling the mutual agreement to end mediation "a lost opportunity to forge a new partnership between labor and Catholic healthcare management." He appended a list of tactics to be avoided and questions to answer to ensure that all parties act in good faith.
He also asked both parties to adhere to the spirit of the document "A Fair and Just Workplace: Principles and Practices for Catholic Health Care." Produced last August by a task force of Catholic clergy, women and religious and labor leaders, the document seeks to provide a frame of reference for unions and Catholic hospital groups in their dealings with each other. Its reception within Catholic healthcare circles has been lukewarm.
Mahony has been careful not to appear as a champion for the labor side within the Catholic healthcare community. Indeed, his statement Nov. 18 was careful not to appear tilted to either side. Yet the sisters in the congregations that sponsor CHW are reportedly not happy about his intercession in what they regard as their business affairs.
The SEIU's corporate campaign has largely died down since the union decided to focus on the NLRB elections, CHW's McTernan said.
With a Democratic governor, Gray Davis, and a Democratic Legislature, the union is effective within the political sphere of Sacramento, McTernan said. "(Its) long-range strategy is to elect as many Democrats as possible."
Still, McTernan and others in Catholic healthcare hope that labor and management eventually can work together on issues of common concern, such as advocating for the uninsured and raising Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. "If we don't get reimbursed, we can't pay employees," she said.
Reimbursement levels are critical for CHW. The system lost $310 million in fiscal 1999. Its $4 billion in revenue notwithstanding, the system hasn't broken even since 1996. New York credit agency Fitch IBCA downgraded $2.1 billion of CHW's outstanding debt last November, warning that the system needs leadership and vision (Dec. 6, 1999, p. 22). Fitch IBCA warned that the system was drifting without a leader. Former CEO Richard Kramer stepped down last summer. The system named Lloyd Dean, executive vice president of Advocate Health Care in Chicago, to the post last Wednesday.