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A Strike Not Solely About Money

By Msgr. George G. Higgins

The Yardstick
November 20, 2000
 I am old enough to remember when it would have been unthinkable for hospital nurses to go on strike. Those days, however, are gone, presumably forever.  Take, for example, a recent seven-week strike by 1,200 nurses at the Washington Hospital Center, the District of Columbia's largest medical facility. The strike ended Nov. 7 with a settlement that in some respects breaks new ground.

 Though hospital officials portrayed the dispute as economic, union officials insisted that the walkout was motivated more by concerns about patient care and patient safety than money. The nurses complained that forced overtime causes exhaustion, which can lead to medical errors.

 The strike was, of course, partly about money, and the nurses ended up with a 14 percent wage increase spread over three years. But, as the union insisted all along, the strike had less to do with economics than scheduling, compulsory overtime and other working conditions. It also had to do with the demand on the part of the nurses for representation on hospital committees dealing with patient care and patient safety.

 What made the settlement newsworthy, then, was not the wage increase (smaller, of course, than the union's initial demand) but the expansion of a program to relieve weekday nurses of weekend shifts and recognition of the right of nurses to refuse overtime because of fatigue, illness or other circumstances and their right to have a say about patient care and patient safety.

 I tend to take the nurses at their word when they say their main concern was improving patient care and patient safety. I have heard hospital workers say the same thing in other hospital settings around the country. In the past year, for example, during several trips to California to observe labor-management disputes in a number of Catholic hospitals, I interviewed approximately 50 health care workers about their concerns and demands. None of them complained about wages, although obviously they would have welcomed an increase. Almost without exception they said that they were mainly concerned about patient care and patient safety, and they complained that they were not consulted on ways and means of dealing with these issues. In short, like the nurses at the Washington Hospital Center, they complained that despite their long years of hands-on experience, they were not represented on hospital committees dealing with patient care.

 The Washington settlement, which provides for at least limited representation of nurses on such committees, is in my opinion a good example of what Catholic social teaching says about the role of unions. Catholic social teaching clearly holds that even if all workers enjoyed decent wages and working conditions (and millions, of course, do not), there would still be a need for unions to empower workers to participate more effectively in the conduct of their own industries or professions and in the overall conduct of our economy.

 The 1986 pastoral letter of the U.S. bishops, "Economic Justice for All," states this broader purpose clearly in a faithful paraphrase of Pope John Paul II's teaching about labor unions in his 1981 encyclical "Laborem Exercens," which the pope amplified 10 years later in "Centesimus Annus."

 It is well known that many conservative and neoconservative commentators, whose favorite encyclical is "Centesimus Annus," strongly disagree with the bishops' pastoral. So be it. But I would encourage them to look again at the totality of John Paul II's teaching on the purpose of unions in both ``Laborem Exercens'' and "Centesimus Annus."



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