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 (Updated: September 2, 1999)

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New Guidelines for Catholic Hospitals and Unions

Msgr. George G. Higgins

May 10, 1999

 In a recent column I criticized some West Coast Catholic hospitals for hiring anti-union management-consulting firms to thwart the organization of their workers into a union of their own choice.
 That wasn't the first time I had raised the issue. I wish I could say it will be the last, but that depends on whether or not Catholic hospital administrators find a way of peacefully resolving the growing number of labor-management disputes in which some of them currently are involved.
 The National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice -- the best ecumenical organization of its kind to emerge in my lifetime -- has just published a booklet of excellent guidelines aimed at helping hospitals and hospital unions change course and move toward dialogue. Titled "Guidelines for Unions and Management of Religiously Sponsored Healthcare Institutions,'' this is a code of conduct to help union leadership and health-care management understand one another, communicate respectfully and build healthy working relationships.
 The guidelines were developed in consultation with a number of advisers, including several nuns who have had extensive experience as administrators in the health-care field. The project was directed by School Sister of Notre Dame Barbara Pfarr, coordinator of the Religious Employer Project of the interfaith committee. In my frequent dealings with Sister Pfarr, I have found her a truly dedicated professional whose sole interest is to help the parties find workable and ethical solutions to their workplace relationships for the good of all concerned. Regrettably, it appears a few hospital administrators have tried to demonize her as a prejudiced, pro-union interloper.
 That's unfair to her as a person and a great disservice to the dialogue she is working to promote. She is a great gift to the health-care industry and a great credit to the religious social-action movement.
 The guidelines her committee has produced are perfectly evenhanded. They urge both parties to be respectful and constructive in dealing with one another and to take each other's particular problems into account. In short, the guidelines challenge the parties to engage in genuine good-faith dialogue in place of adversarial partisanship. The guidelines appear at a crucial turning point in the history of the health-care industry in the United States. The industry is truly in a state of serious crisis. Gerald Shea, a veteran AFL-CIO expert in the health-care field, saw this crisis coming some years ago and pleaded with both parties to recognize that it would be in their own best interest to work together for the good of the industry and for the welfare of all citizens.
 In a letter several years ago to the chairman of the board of the Catholic Health Association, Shea said that as a representative of the nation's largest union of health-care employees, "I have watched with mounting concern the recent rollback of support in our country for a comprehensive health-care system. Rampant inflation, financial squeezes, service cuts and the new proposal for drastic experimentation will sorely test the strength of our health-care delivery system in the near future.
 "I feel that all of our citizens will suffer, but the poor most of all. I believe it is important that organizations such as ours ... which have a genuine interest in long-standing commitment to quality health care maintain a dialogue on the important challenges before us.''
 The guidelines released by Sister Pfarr's committee are aimed at following up constructively on Shea's plea.
 (Sister Pfarr may be contacted at 773-728-8400.)

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