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 (Updated: December 21, 1998)

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Catholic Hospitals and Ethical Guidelines

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William Bole

November 1998

    After years of often-harsh and embarrassing confrontations over union organizing in Catholic hospitals, advocates of labor are quietly at work on a set of ground rules aimed at stemming the hostilities between labor and management in Catholic healthcare.
   Some religious orders that sponsor Catholic hospitals have taken an interest in the initiative but also view the tentative list of proposals as slanted toward unions.
    Several drafts of these "ethical guidelines" have emerged from closed-door conversations arranged by the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, a Chicago-based advocacy group.
    "Everyone I talk to in Catholic health care names labor relations as something that needs to be figured out," said Sister Barbara Pfarr.
    She acknowledged that Catholic healthcare leaders see the current proposals as biased against management, and stressed that the eight-page document will undergo numerous drafts before union and hospital leaders are asked to sign on to the principles.
   "We want a document that will be acceptable and useful to both parties," said Sister Pfarr, a Sister of Notre Dame who has held dozens of meetings with hospital leaders over the past 18 months. "It's a way to get people talking instead of beating each other up."
    In the latest struggle to draw public attention, union leaders and some clergy say seven hospitals owned by Catholic Healthcare West have harassed and intimidated workers who want to join the Service Employees International Union. The hospital chain has denied the accusations.
    Among other points, the draft guidelines caution management against hiring consultants that specialize in keeping hospitals and other workplaces "union free." The drafters have in mind consulting firms like the two retained by Catholic Healthcare West during the current organizing battle.
    The document also opposes campaigns, either for or against unions, that cast the other party in a negative light. It urges both sides to assume that each other operates in good faith and usually "wants the best for both workers and patients."
   Further, labor organizers are told not to "make unrealistic promises" about what unionization can deliver to workers in the competitive healthcare market.
   Sister Doris Gottemoeller, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and chairwoman of the Catholic Health Association in the United States, welcomed the initiative.
    "It's a needed effort," she said. While noting that earlier drafts of the document were too pro- union, Sister Gottemoeller said, "It's considerably improved. It's much more nuanced now." Still, she said the guidelines need to go further toward "incorporating the management perspective."
    Asked about the advice against hiring explicitly anti-union consultants, she added, "I suspect that's a good position to take. I have no problem with that."
    But some others are less receptive to the notion of proscribing the use of consulting firms often branded as "union busters" by supporters of labor.
    "I don't think that everyone who hires (management consultants) is hiring them to bust a union. They're trying to get information in a very difficult situation," said Sister Mary Mollison, general superior of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Agnes, in Fond  du Lac, Wisc., referring to the intricacies of federal labor law.
    Sister Mollison, whose community sponsors several hospitals in Wisconsin, expressed doubts about the usefulness of guidelines for unions and Catholic hospitals. She said anything written down will be as "open to interpretation" as the pro-labor Catholic social teachings -- which unions and Catholic hospitals have argued over in the course of organizing battles.
    Nonetheless, she said, "I support the idea of getting the dialogue going."
    Union officials say Catholic hospitals, like their secular counterparts, have steadily resisted unionization in their institutions.
    Mary Kay Henry, a national organizer with the Service Employees International Union, cited AFL-CIO figures indicating that seven percent of all Catholic hospitals in the United States are unionized. She said that in all but a handful of organizing drives, Catholic hospitals have employed "union busters" to break organizing campaigns.
    The document, titled "Ethical Guideliness for Unions and Management of Religiously Sponsored and Other Nonprofit Healthcare Institutions," are not limited to Catholic healthcare. But the conversations have centered largely on Catholic institutions simply because the Church operates the largest network of private, non-profit hospitals.
    Religious orders of women sponsor the overwhelming majority of Catholic hospitals, though day- to-day running of the institutions has fallen increasingly into lay hands as the numbers of sisters have declined in recent years.
    The record of labor-management relations in Catholic hospitals has become the ready example for those who fear the Church is failing to practice what it preaches about social and economic justice.
    Labor leaders have been sure to toss the teachings into the organizing mix whenever conflicts arise. They have been able to call on a tradition of Catholic social teaching that casts unions and collective bargaining not only as a human right but a positive good in the modern workplace "indispensable," in Pope John Paul II's words.
    In their 1983 letter on Catholic social teaching and the American economy, the U.S. bishops wrote that they "firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably seen in this country, to break existing unions or prevent workers from organizing."
    In fighting organizing drives, some Catholic hospital managers and sponsors have made statements that would appear, at least on the surface, to violate the spirit of Church teachings on labor.
    During the struggle at nine hospitals belonging to Catholic Healthcare West, both managers and members of sponsoring religious communities have circulated letters internally suggesting that unions are harmful to the health of workplaces and their values in conflict with the Catholic mission. One letter from a chaplain said unions were interested primarily in taking money from "the vulnerable, the disenfranchised and the poor."
    In comments to the press, Catholic Healthcare West leaders have said they support the right of workers to organize, in keeping with Catholic social doctrine, but reserve the right to oppose unions in their institutions.
    Sister Mollison of the St. Agnes order said she agrees that unions are "part of the (social) tradition of the Church I don't know of any Catholic hospital employer who would say they're not trying to follow the social teachings. But when you translate that into real-life situations, it gets murky."
    Ideally, from the union perspective, Catholic hospitals would neither endorse nor oppose unionization. In other words, they would remain neutral, which many public hospitals and some private for-profit hospitals have done. Catholic Healthcare West leaders have rejected a plea for neutrality, saying it would give an unfair advantage to unions.
    Instead of calling for neutrality, the ethical guidelines urge hospitals to adopt "a position of respect" during organizing campaigns. "If you share reasons why you don't want a union in the institution, do so without devaluing unions in general or the union in particular," says the draft. The document notes that hospitals should "be most careful" about mandatory sessions in which supervisors denigrate unions.
    Catholic healthcare leaders say the respect needs to run both ways. Sister Gottemoeller said the guidelines would probably strike a better balance if included an item against publicity campaigns like the one the Service Employees has launched against Catholic Healthcare West. She said such campaigns represent a form of intimidation against management.

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