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Speaking Up for an Underdog

By Msgr. George G. Higgins

The Yardstick
July 5, 1999 

At a meeting in Queens, N.Y., of Catholic health care administrative personnel, two California participants argued that Catholic clergy should avoid taking sides in disputes over union-organizing attempts in Catholic hospitals. It isn't clear whether those participants spoke for Catholic Healthcare West, California's largest nonprofit health care provider, which is involved in a long-standing dispute with the Service Employees International Union. The participants' California background, however, prompts me to focus here on why I disagree with CHW on several issues.
A letter I received from a CHW spokesperson disagreed with an earlier column of mine. CHW argues that Catholic hospitals have a right to seek outside legal counsel in dealing with SEIU's organizing campaign. I replied that, of course, they have this right, but could easily get this advice from any number of neutral law firms.

CHW has contracted with a leading management-consultant firm, Management Science Associates. Having read a generous sampling of MSA's promotional material and advice to CHW, I conclude it is providing CHW sophisticated advice for thwarting SEIU's campaign -- and this for the purpose of keeping its clients' hospitals union-free.

MSA has been known to boast of a 96 percent success rate in countering SEIU's organizing drive. To show that CHW is not anti-union, its spokesperson told me that over the years CHW has dealt with a number of unions, including SEIU, which represents the second largest number of CHW's organized employees. In summary, she reported, despite some ups and downs, CHW's relationships with unions, including SEIU, have been enduring and "all parties genuinely share many concerns and objectives."

I replied that I saw a disconnect between that measured, fairly friendly statement and MSA's boast of success.

Second, CHW and its affiliates regularly stress the need for good-faith dialogue on labor-management issues. Yet, after School Sister of Notre Dame Barbara Pfarr of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice and her subcommittee issued evenhanded guidelines for such dialogue, she told me she was demonized as the enemy by people associated with CHW.

I think CHW should disavow any deeply hurtful criticism directed at Sister Pfarr by people from its ranks. Otherwise it leaves itself open to suspicion that it prefers to indulge in the kind of adversarial labor-management relationship it says it abhors and blames on SEIU.

I support the dialogue Sister Pfarr promotes, but my experience with management-consulting firms in the health care field leads me to question their commitment to such dialogue. I think that, generally speaking, even the best of them are committed not to promoting the dialogue, but to keeping their clients' hospitals union-free.

I urged my CHW correspondent to take seriously No. 9 in the guidelines for management in Sister Pfarr's report. It says that "management firms dedicated to keeping your workplace 'union-free' often orchestrate behavior and activities that workers find very intimidating. These agencies specialize in pressuring workers to the fullest extent allowed by law, and sometimes beyond the law. Unfortunately, what is legal may not be ethical and may still be intimidating to workers."

Those hired to guide the response to an organizing drive need to "know that their primary role is to advise you on your legal rights and obligations," the guidelines says. They should "treat union organizers and workers respectfully" and "not cast the union in a negative light."

Anyone who wonders why clergy sometimes get involved in union-organizing matters might bear in mind that the workers in these campaigns -- disproportionately poor, female and minority-group members -- have little public support whereas their employers, aided by expensive management-consultant firms, are riding the crest of anti-union sentiment now endemic in our culture.

I see no reason to apologize for speaking in favor of this very uneven conflict's underdogs.

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