The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is scheduled to release a comprehensive set of principles this week intended to guide hospital executives in negotiating contracts with labor unions that ideally would make that process much smoother for both sides.
Catholic labors guiding light?
U.S. bishops’ conference to release ‘blue print’ for management on union issues
A source with the Service Employees International Union said that the Roman Catholic bishops announcement, which is expected June 22, will serve as a blue print for management at more than 600 Catholic hospitals as they consider whether to forge labor accords with parent unions. Such accords lay the ground rules for relations between union organizers and management in the run-up to elections, and both sides agree that the agreements make the formation of a new bargaining unit more likely.
Word of the announcement comes as labor accords between unions and hospital management are on the rise. The SEIU, the nations largest healthcare union representing more than 1 million workers in the field, has already used labor accords to set the stage for union votes at large systems like Allina Hospitals & Clinics, Catholic Healthcare West and Kaiser Permanente. The SEIU also has labor accords with numerous specific hospitals owned by for-profit HCA and Tenet Healthcare Corp.
In Dorchester, Mass., this month, 79% of the workers at 133-bed Caritas Carney Hospitalwho are covered by a neutrality agreement between the SEIU and Caritas Christi Health Carevoted in favor of forming a new bargaining unit there. Nine years ago, workers said, the management climate was so hostile that union officials backed away from organizing activity at the hospital.
Other evidence raises questions about the strength of new unions formed under such agreements. The 170-bed Cypress Fairbanks Medical Center in Houston made national news last year when its registered nurses voted to form the only healthcare union in Texas through a labor accord with the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee.
One year later, the bargaining unit at the Tenet-owned hospital still has no contract, and the workers are scheduled to vote June 25 and 26 on whether to decertify the union.
Labor accords include all manner of terms and conditions. So-called fair and free election accords like the one between SEIU and Caritas Christi include requirements that are subject to arbitration, while more strict neutrality agreements are as legally binding as contracts and are often the product of political pressure or the requirements of bonding or bidding, industry experts said.
The common theme among such agreements is that hospital officials agree to offer more access to employees than would otherwise be granted, and management typically agrees not to hold informational meetings that unions complain are intimidating or coercive.
Jim Trivisonno, president of IRI Consultants, a management-consulting firm based in Detroit, said that more unions appear to be willing to swallow a labor accord because as greater pressure to unionize has come to bear on healthcare employers, particularly when a union uses a corporate campaign involving direct and prolonged pressure on an employer. The pressure that employers get as a result of that is sometimes more than they want to deal with. They may not say that, but the corporate campaign is the tactic that a union will use to force an employer into a peace accord, Trivisonno said.
Dan Rodriguez, vice president of labor relations for Tenet, said hospitals are uniquely susceptible to hard-nosed union tactics such as corporate campaigns. A patient who wants the best care for a loved one might be easily scared off by a picket line outside the hospital where workers are waving bloody sheets and saying the hospital has been cited for poor care.
I would think twice about going to that hospital. And thats the kind of direct impact that those specific tactics have on hospitals and the healthcare industry in general, Rodriguez said. However, the sense of peace from a labor accord is also often associated with higher legal fees, particularly if both sides in the organizing drive wage a pitched battle that results in unfair labor practice complaints.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long expressed support for enhancing protections for workers seeking to form unions. The statement of comprehensive principles is the culmination of work that began with the August 1999 publication of the bishops working committee report, A Fair and Just Workplace.
That report found that Catholic social teaching promotes several sets of values that both the church and the labor movement hold in common:
Catholic social teaching sets forth some basic values that are shared by Catholic healthcare and the organized labor movement in this country. Both share a commitment to serving the poor and providing access to services that are essential to caring for human needs. Both are called to respect the needs of workers and their right to safe working conditions, a fair wage, and a voice in the workplace decisions that affect them, the 1999 report said.
In the decade since, the bishops have worked with Catholic healthcare providers and organized labor to craft a set of principles to address the gap between financial pressures on local hospitals and the lessons of Catholic social teaching. It is offered as a help to all three groups who have the responsibility to craft their individual policies in this and other areas, Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, said in an e-mailed statement. It is the result of dialogue on many issues of agreement and many divisive issues.
The Dec. 30, 2008, labor accord between the SEIU and Caritas Christi, which is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Boston, contains a preamble that reflects nearly all of those principles, according to a copy of the accord that the union provided to Modern Healthcare.
Just four months later, workers at the largest hospital in the Caritas chain, 338-bed Caritas St. Elizabeths Medical Center, Brighton, Mass., voted by a 73% majority to join 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. On June 10, Caritas Carney workers became the second hospital whose workers joined the union, and SEIU officials say they expect Caritas Christis four other hospitals to follow
Robert Stanley, a mental health counselor at Caritas Carney and a supporter of unionization at the hospital, said that he felt the agreement allowed employees to make their choice without being intimidated or subjected to fear by management, as happened in the past.
Without an agreement, the cards are very clearly stacked in an employers favor, and all of the organizing ends up having to be done under the table and in secret, Stanley said. If you level the playing field, which this agreement clearly did, you dont have all of that. It just makes the whole atmosphere so much better and healthier.
Management of Caritas Carney declined a request for an interview, saying that the hospital could only release a statement. Caritas Christi President and CEO Ralph de la Torre said in the written statement that the systems hospitals were trying to act as members of their local communities. It is only with all segments of a community working together that we will achieve the level of cost-efficient quality care Massachusetts deserves, he said.
The release also included plaudits from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. Mike Fadel, an executive vice president with 1199SEIU, said that he could not overstate how much public goodwill was generated by the Caritas accord. Trivisonno and Rodriguez both agreed that political pressure is a factor that drives hospitals toward signing labor accords.
Marissa Cuellar, an RN at Houstons Cypress Fairbanks and one of the most vocal opponents of the union drive there, said employers who are considering signing a peace accord ought to consider doing employee education sessions before the ink is dry on the contract.
The agreement gags management, and so employees are not allowed to go to the management to get questions answered, Cuellar said. They get reprimanded. Unfair labor practices are filed against the hospital if they hear management talking to an employee about the union ... My advice is to educate your nurses beforehand.
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