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(Updated: January 27, 2002)


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A Giant Step Forward for Health Care Services

By Msgr. George G. Higgins

The Yardstick

May 21, 2001

Catholic Healthcare West, the largest Catholic health-care system on the West Coast, and the Service Employees International Union, the largest union of health-care workers in the United States, signed a far-reaching agreement April 4 which can only be described as historic. The two parties, which for several years were in bitter conflict, have decided to undertake a new and very creative approach to providing quality health care for patients and quality jobs for health-care employees.

I could hardly believe my eyes as I read the detailed text of their new agreement. It contains several unique provisions calling for SEIU and CHW to pursue joint efforts to improve the nation's health-care system in a number of areas, including:

--Universal access to affordable health care, including expanded rights for immigrants.
--Education and training for health-care employees.
--Improved recruitment and retention of employees in the health-care field.

The section of the agreement dealing with the issue of labor-management relations makes clear that the parties mean business and are not simply indulging in public-relations propaganda. In recent years, the right of hospital workers to organize has been the parties' main sticking point. The statement of philosophy in the section dealing with this subject says that CHW and SEIU support workers’ freedom to form and join a union. The two parties support the philosophy that positive relationships rise from shared creativity and responsibility, the recognition and protection of employees’ basic human rights and the representation of workers’ interests -- in ways assuring that their voice consistently and effectively will be heard -- in decisions that affect them and their patients.

To implement this philosophy, the parties have agreed to a number of specific guidelines which break radically new ground. Their pragmatism in establishing verifiable procedures to improve their relationship in this area makes the agreement a truly innovative step in the right direction.

To begin with, they agree to jointly select a permanent election officer for each division and then take a step which I, for one, would have wagered a year ago CHW would never agree to. The agreement says:

“Upon the union’s presentation of union-authorization cards from 30 percent of the employees within the appropriate bargaining unit to the election officer, the election officer shall direct an election within five working days.” It says also, “The employer and union agree to schedule an election conducted by the election officer within 35 days after submission of a showing of interest of union-authorization cards.”

Speeding up elections this way should help to eliminate many if not most anti-union abuses that traditionally occur when elections are spread out over a period of weeks and even months.

As added proof of their good faith, the parties agree to set up a rapid-response team to quickly and effectively address any problem that may arise during the election period in any CHW facility.

The practice which caused the most trouble in previous CHW elections was CHW’s use of one-on-one meetings with workers to discourage them from organizing. Here again, the agreement takes a giant step. It says that no CHW supervisors will initiate one-on-one conversations with employees about unionization. It also requires that group meetings called by CHW on the subject of unionization be voluntary and held on nonwork time.

I was not privy to the negotiations which resulted in the new agreement, but I can readily imagine it was a difficult and at times extremely intense process. But all is well that ends well. Sincere congratulations to both parties are in order, and let’s hope that other health-care systems in the United States follow their lead.

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