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A Helpful Step for Catholic Hospitals and Unions

By Msgr. George G. Higgins

The Yardstick
September 13, 1999
A subcommittee of the U.S. Catholic Conference Social Development Department released a timely document Aug. 26 aimed at breaking new ground on the subject of labor-management relations in the Catholic health care field. The document is titled "A Fair and Just Workplace: Principles and Practices for Catholic Health Care." It summarizes the limited consensus of a two-year dialogue carried on by representatives of major superiors of women religious, Catholic health care leaders, bishops and organized labor.

The subcommittee explored areas of common interest regarding Catholic social teaching and work in hopes of developing guidelines for labor-management relationships in Catholic health care facilities. The document wisely does not address any particular past or present controversy in this area. Its purpose is to raise the dialogue to a higher level, and to point to principles and practices applicable to all health care facilities.

Since the subcommittee was made up of people with widely different perspectives, it would have been naive to expect it to produce complete agreement. I have my own reservations about the document.

For example, I think it is too weak on the importance of unions in our society and on the importance attributed to them in Catholic social teaching, notably John Paul II's teaching. But I find it hopeful that the dialogue participants reached a significant degree of consensus on some of the neuralgic and controversial issues on their wide-ranging agenda.

Their document does not pretend to be the last word on the subject. It is, however, a helpful beginning of what can and should be a productive dialogue in the wider Catholic community. All things considered, the subcommittee did its work as well as could reasonably have been expected.

The subcommittee has set an example in how to carry on the dialogue in a spirit of candor, openness and respect for differing points of view. It is now up to the wider Catholic community to take up the dialogue where the subcommittee left off, and to do so in the same spirit. The subcommittee and its constituent members will initiate local and regional gatherings for this purpose. I have only two suggestions about how to improve the dialogue in these follow-up meetings:

 --First, I think it is essential that rank-and-file hospital workers, particularly low-paid workers, be invited to speak for themselves about their own work experience in Catholic health care facilities. They have not yet been heard from in the dialogue.

 Even the two experienced labor leaders who represented them on the subcommittee, both highly respected friends of mine, could not fully reflect the on-the-job work experience of these employees. What these employees will say publicly of their own experience may shock some participants in the dialogue -- but so be it.

 --Second, I think it is important to bear in mind that in many parts of the United States a significant number of employees, particularly low-paid employees in Catholic hospitals and facilities, are not Catholics. It will not be enough to communicate with them in terms of Catholic social teaching, although this is proper and necessary. We will have to find some way of addressing their concerns ecumenically from the point of view of their own faith traditions and commitments.

 The Chicago-based National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice could be helpful in this regard. This is the best organization of its kind to appear on the scene in my lifetime.

Let me conclude with a word of congratulations to John Carr, director of the USCC Social Development Department, and his staff. They played a crucial supportive role in the subcommittee's work and deserve our gratitude.

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