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Catholic Health System, Union Set Expedited Election Rules

By Jerry Filteau

April 10, 2001
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Catholic Healthcare West and the Service Employees International Union have signed a landmark agreement on procedures and conduct for expedited union representation elections.

The 15-page accord between the nation's largest health care union and the West Coast's largest Catholic health
system was released April 6. It provides for representation elections within 35 days after authorization cards are presented by at least 30 percent of the employees in a potential bargaining unit. It sets procedures to hire a mutually agreed elections official to oversee the election. It commits both sides to expedited mediation and arbitration procedures to resolve disagreements, foregoing many of the legal moves and countermoves that can delay a union election for months or years under National Labor Relations Board procedures.

Veteran labor rights leader Msgr. George G. Higgins called it "a historic document" that "goes far beyond" any
previous labor-management agreement in the health care field.
"This is a tremendously important step forward," he told Catholic News Service April 10. "If anybody had told
me a year ago that they (CHW) would agree to a card-check election, I wouldn't have believed it." He said he hoped every Catholic health care system in the country would look at the agreement as a model for its own dealings with unions.

The agreement is particularly important because it goes beyond a statement of general principles to "specific ways of implementing them," he said.

Catholic Healthcare West, with headquarters in San Francisco, is a network of 48 hospitals employing some 40,000 people in California, Nevada and Arizona. The agreement covers the 45 California and Nevada institutions. It includes a union-administration pact to pursue joint efforts to improve U.S. health care in several areas of public policy, including universal access to affordable health care, expanded rights for immigrant workers and expanded federal and state health care coverage for children.

For several years the SEIU has been engaged in extensive efforts to organize employees at Catholic Healthcare
West facilities. While it has unionized several hospitals in the San Francisco area, it ran into stiff opposition in
the Los Angeles area, where anti-union tactics of supervisory personnel in some institutions provoked

In a letter to employees announcing the agreement, Catholic Healthcare West chief executive officer Lloyd H.
Dean said, "This agreement with SEIU recognizes that the question of whether employees should be represented is a question that employees should decide for themselves. Therefore, we have agreed to rules of conduct that will apply during a union organizing effort. ... No employee will be granted any benefit or suffer any detriment because he or she chooses to support or oppose representation by a union."

The letter said Catholic Healthcare West "prefers a direct relationship between employer and employee" but
will "fully support our employees' choice." "If our employees choose SEIU," it added, "we will enter into good faith negotiations to reach a collective bargaining agreement in an expeditious manner and will work together with the union to develop a constructive ongoing relationship."

The joint news release announcing the agreement cknowledged the importance of the support both sides received from California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada and Mercy Sister Mary Roch Rocklage, president and chief executive officer of the Sister of Mercy Health System in St. Louis.

Sister Rocklage and Cardinal Mahony were involved in a national task force, put together by the U.S. bishops'
Committee on Domestic Policy, that brought bishops, union officials, health care leaders and other specialists together to develop guidelines for worker justice in the Catholic health care workplace.

Those guidelines, issued in August 1999, urged both sides in union organizing campaigns to avoid threats or intimidation, making misleading claims, impugning the motives of the other side or "losing sight of the fact that this (union representation) is a decision for the workers themselves to make."

The guidelines remained at the level of general principles, however, urging management, unions and workers alike to support and respect the rights of workers to make their own free decision, based on accurate information and free of coercion, regarding representation in the workplace.

The agreement makes no reference to the task force or its guidelines. But Cardinal Mahony brought them into the discussion in 1999 when he intervened personally to try to break a CHW-SEIU stalemate, and principles spelled out in the guidelines are reflected in the specific details of the agreement. In the agreement both sides affirmed the primacy of the workers' right to decide. Both agreed not to impugn the
motives of the other.

Catholic Healthcare West institutions agreed not to let supervisors meet one-on-one with employees to advise
against unionization -- a tactic unions regard as one of the most intimidating anti-union weapons wielded by management in any unionization drive and a point Msgr. Higgins highlighted as one of the most important in the agreement.

Under the agreement, the SEIU is allowed to post literature on at least one public bulletin board in a hospital where it is engaged in organizing activity; if the hospital uses more than one bulletin board to post its views on a unionization effort, the union will have access to an equal number of bulletin boards.
The union agreed not to engage in corporate campaigns against CHW institutions, such as critical ads in newspapers.

The Chicago-based National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice hailed the agreement as a "positive step forward" allowing CHW employees ``a fair and free process for exercising their right to organize and choose whether they want a union."

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