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Thinking About Unions in More Expansive Terms

By Msgr. George G. Higgins

The Yardstick
December 20, 1999
 I spent three very busy days recently in Sacramento, Calif., conferring with all the principals on both sides of the prolonged dispute between workers and management in three of the many Catholic hospitals in the state that are affiliated with Catholic Healthcare West.
For two years the Service Employees International Union has been trying to organize the workers in these hospitals against CHW's strong opposition. I urged both sides to lift their sights to the vision outlined in the U.S. bishops' 1986 pastoral letter on ``Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy,'' which says:

"A new experiment in bringing democratic ideals to economic life calls for serious exploration of ways to develop new patterns of partnership among those working in individual firms and industries." It says that every enterprise depends on many people and groups for its success and that all have a contribution to make. I emphasized, however, that it is idle to talk about new forms of labor-management partnership if the workers are denied the right to organize into a union of their choice.

When I made this point in a radio talk show in Sacramento, sponsored by the diocese, I was reminded by the neutral moderator that many Americans think unions have outlived their usefulness. This widespread opinion is based on a flawed understanding of the purpose of unions in a democratic society. It completely ignores their role in enabling workers "to share or participate in a fully human way in the life of their places of employment," as Pope John Paul II said in his encyclical "Laborem Exercens" ("On Human Labor").

The pope said in a later encyclical, "Centesimus Annus," that unions defend workers' rights, protect their interests as persons and fulfill a vital cultural role, enabling workers to participate more fully and honorably in their nation's life and assisting them along the path of development.

I got the impression during my Sacramento meetings that CHW has not yet come to the point of thinking about unions in those expansive terms. It is not alone in this. Many conservatives and neo-conservatives in the United States ignore or play down the role of unions in enabling workers to participate in developing new patterns of partnership in their places of employment.
Recently, going through my files, I came across a 50-year-old example of this kind of myopia from the pen of a distinguished British political philosopher, Dominican Father Thomas Gilby. Union officials, he wrote in "Between Community and Society," one of my favorite books of the '50s, are understandably slow to admit that the time has come for their departments to shrivel away. He said that trade unionism, designed to bargain with owners and perhaps overthrow capitalism, continues long after the occasions of its usefulness have disappeared.

But I am unable to agree with that. Trade unionism in the world's English-speaking countries was not designed originally, nor is it designed today, merely to bargain with owners, much less to overthrow capitalism. Trade unionism in England, and especially in the United States, was and is designed to go beyond the limits of collective bargaining into an expanding system of labor-management cooperation for the common good of particular companies and enterprises, and the common good of the economic system as a whole.
I hope and pray that a quick and fair settlement of the ongoing CHW-SEIU dispute in California will hasten the coming of a better day for the health care industry, now it a state of crisis. It is in our Catholic hospitals' best interests to respect their workers' basic right to organize into unions so that they can participate effectively in the decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods.

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