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  (Updated: September 2, 1999)

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The Challenge for Some Catholic Hospitals

Msgr. George G. Higgins

March 29, 1999

 The National Labor Relations Act -- the so-called Wagner Act -- in 1935 declared it U.S. government policy to encourage collective bargaining and to protect the right of workers to organize into unions of their own choice. It created a mechanism to guarantee the free exercise of this right, the National Labor Relations Board. The board's statutory mandate was to promote democracy in the workplace, at least in the choice of union representation for the purpose of collective bargaining. The ensuing years saw the gradual development of a democratic system for fulfilling that mandate. Rules and regulations, modified from time to time as experience warranted, were developed by the board and sustained by the courts. Voluntary cooperation between unions and employers in carrying out the stated purpose of the Wagner Act was the cornerstone of this system.
 The willingness of the trade-union movement and of a substantial segment of American industry to cooperate in this regard ensured the system's success. A remarkable degree of industrial stability was the reward.
 Today, however, this fragile system, built over a period of more than 60 years, is, in the opinion of many qualified observers, on the brink of collapse. The reason is that one part of the system's cornerstone -- voluntary employer cooperation -- is in many cases no longer forthcoming.
 The NLRB is being swamped with unfair labor-practice charges. But unfair labor practices are only symptomatic of an even more serious and fundamental threat: the dramatic increase in the number of professional experts employers are hiring to undermine the democratic election process developed over the years by the NLRB. Until the fairly recent past, outside professionals in the field of labor-management relations usually were lawyers, whose job was to provide legal advice to employers -- the legal dos and don'ts in an organizing campaign. The employer typically would oppose unionization, but its campaign tactics were either rational appeals to the employees or, in the case of a totally unprincipled employer, blatantly coercive conduct that the NLRB could remedy.
 Today, however, the employer's election consultant all too often functions as an anti-union campaign manager. The tactics of the campaign, the issues to raise, when to raise them, in what form and, above all, to which management representatives: All are dictated by the consultant. Elaborate training sessions for supervisors typify the modern NLRB election campaign in many industries. It is particularly worrisome that anti-union management consulting firms are being employed by a number of Catholic health care institutions, notably in several California hospitals sponsored by Catholic Healthcare West.
 In an effort to thwart an organizing drive by the Service Employees International Union, CHW has employed anti-union consultants. It is hard to reconcile this practice with Catholic social teaching in general and, more specifically, with the teaching of the U.S. bishops' 1986 pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All.'' In the section of the pastoral dealing with the church as an economic actor, the pastoral reads in part as follows:
 "All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the church and its agencies and institutions; indeed the church should be exemplary.... All church institutions must ... fully recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively with the institutions through whatever association or organization they freely choose.'' The pastoral then goes on to encourage Catholic institutions to adopt new and fruitful modes of cooperation with their employees.

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