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     One of the Fiercest Labor Battles in Catholic Healthcare is Coming to a Crashing Conclusion. 

Mr. William Bole

Our Sunday Visitor

February 1, 2000
A series of tense union elections are being held at 
Catholic Healthcare West (CHW) in California, and indications are that the huge hospital chain will prevail in its drive to ward off widespread unionization. The conflict has caused considerable heartburn in a Church that wants to both survive in a cutthroat healthcare environment and respect the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. 

 A push by Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles to mediate between CHW and the Service Employees International Union recently ended in failure. And, a set of principles released in August by the U.S. Catholic Conference, aimed 
at resolving such disputes, had seemingly little if any effect on the  confrontation in California.

     The union-hospital fight is winding down as acrimoniously as it began over two years ago. On Jan. 27, the Service Employees lost key elections at 
five Sacramento hospitals owned by CHW, with nearly 2000 workers voting. The union is crying foul and charging that the hospitals used illegal pressure tactics to win the campaigns. Hospital officials deny the allegations.

     "Obviously, we're pleased," said Jill Dryer, spokeswoman for Mercy Healthcare Sacramento, regional branch of CHW. She said the hospital system respected the right to organize, but made clear its preference that the workers maintain a "direct relationship" with management, with no union.

     The union did win, decisively on that same day, an election at three CHW hospitals in the San Francisco area. But that election involved only a few hundred employees. In San Francisco, where organized labor is strong, the hospital system agreed to refrain from resisting unionization. The Sacramento 
hospitals made no such pledge.

     Msgr. George G. Higgins, who is considered the Church's leading authority on labor questions, said the Sacramento elections delivered a "clear defeat" to the Service Employees, the nation's largest union of hospital workers. The 84-year-old priest, who lives on the campus of Catholic 
University in Washington, traveled to Sacramento for the elections, at the invitation of hospital workers there.
     Referring to the non-interference pledge by San Francisco hospitals, Msgr. Higgins said, "If they had done that in Sacramento, I suppose the union 
would have won." He gave credence to findings by a civic monitoring commission that the hospitals used heavy pressure tactics including one-on-one meetings with workers and "captive audience" sessions with groups of workers.

The Fair Election Oversight Commission, made up of 15 religious, political, and community leaders, also charges that hospital supervisors gave workers the impression that they would lose benefits and time off if they voted for representation.
     "It wasn't the most brutal campaign I've seen. But it was a classic, negative anti-union campaign, especially considering that it was the Sisters of Mercy, who do great work in this city," said the Rev. Chris Hartmire, a Presbyterian minister and co-chairman of the pro-labor commission.

     The Mercy sisters operate four of the Sacramento hospitals that fought off the union; the fifth is Methodist Hospital, one of many CHW acquisitions in recent years. The union won a small election at an assisted care facility in Sacramento.

     While confirming the one-on-one meetings, Dryer said she was "not aware" of any threats made by supervisors. "We believe we have acted appropriately, all through this campaign," she said. 

     In the past month, 3,500 workers have voted in union elections at CHW, and another 1,500 are expected to do so by mid-March. The elections won by the union will net about 1,000 members, including 500 nurses at two facilities in Ventura County who voted to affiliate with the Service 
Employees on January 13.

     The union is challenging the results of the largest election in 
Sacramento, in which workers voted 701-598 against affiliation. A reversal by the National Labor Relations Board is considered unlikely, although the federal agency has slapped CHW with several complaints of unfair labor practices during the organizing campaign.

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