The Service Employees International Union carried its hardball tactics into the halls of the Catholic Health Association's annual meeting last week in San Francisco, distributing videotapes and handing out fliers denouncing its No. 1 target.
It was the latest act in the SEIU's long-running guerrilla theater piece against San Francisco-based Catholic Healthcare West, the West Coast's largest hospital company. For three years the union has used every means at its disposal to annoy, embarrass and hector the 49-hospital system into recognizing new labor units in Northern and Southern California.
The display at the CHA gathering, which drew 1,200 Catholic healthcare leaders from around the country, follows by a month a significant union victory.
The SEIU helped prevent a CHW-affiliated HMO from getting a contract with the California Public Employees Retirement System, which covers 1.1 million employees and dependents in the state.
Western Health Advantage, one-third owned by Mercy Healthcare Sacramento, a CHW division, had attempted to become the 11th HMO with a CalPERS contract. The CalPERS board voted down the contract 6-4 on May 16, after the SEIU raised questions about Western Health's financial stability and Mercy's labor-relations record.
The SEIU's recent actions appear to represent an abandonment of an agreement to tone down tactics. Last October, acting on a request by Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archbishop Roger Mahony, both parties said they would try to temper their actions. CHW severed its relations with two anti-labor consulting firms, the Burke Group, based in Malibu, Calif., and Management Science Associates, based in Independence, Mo. The SEIU pledged to halt its demonization of the hospital system.
Jill Dryer, spokeswoman for Mercy Sacramento, expressed frustration with the union's tactics.
"For several years, we have been enduring SEIU's attempt to discredit and undermine Mercy Healthcare Sacramento and those associated with us," she said. "It's perplexing to us how SEIU's continuing efforts to undermine our mission and service to the Sacramento community could possibly benefit the community or our employees."
In San Francisco last week, the SEIU and other supporters demonstrated outside the downtown San Francisco Marriott, where the CHA was holding its conference and which has had union troubles of its own.
Four years ago, hotel workers authorized the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union to represent them, but the hotel and the union have yet to negotiate a contract.
The hotel union, which regularly demonstrates outside the Marriott, joined the SEIU and others in protesting what they call anti-union practices at Catholic hospitals. Estimates on the number of protesters varied from 200 to 600, depending on who did the estimating.
The SEIU proclaimed that the demonstration a success. "This is just one more step toward our goal," said Sal Rosselli, president of SEIU Local 250.
During the four-day CHA meeting, which ended June 14, SEIU representatives distributed fliers, blasted CHW and called on Catholic hospitals to support workers' efforts to organize without recrimination.
The union also passed out copies of a five-minute videocassette accusing CHW of ignoring church teachings on the rights of labor.
One man on the tape accuses the company of "viciousness" that was not Christian and not humane. A woman says that Catholic sisters within CHW "should be ashamed of themselves."
Lori Aldrete, CHW's vice president of corporate communications, said the SEIU's actions did not detract from the CHA meeting.
About 25% of CHW's 40,000 employees are already represented by nine unions, Aldrete said.