Fordham Law

Health, labor leaders OK principles to help workers decide on unions

The Feerick Center in Catholic News Service, June 23, 2009

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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- After more than two years of consultations, leaders from Catholic health care, the labor movement and the U.S. bishops' conference have agreed on a set of principles designed to ensure a fair process as health care workers decide whether to join a union.

A 12-page document laying out the principles, titled "Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Catholic Health Care and Unions," was made public June 22 during a teleconference call from Washington.

"The heart of this unusual consensus is that it's up to workers -- not bishops, hospital managers or union leaders -- to decide ... whether or not to be represented by a union and if so, which union, in the workplace," said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington and a participant in the consultations.

"Because Catholic health care is a ministry, not an industry, how it treats its workers and how organized labor treats Catholic health care are not simply internal matters," the cardinal added. "They are also not just another arena for labor conflict and tactics, but ought to reflect long-standing Catholic teaching on work and workers, health care and the common good."

The document calls on unions and employers to respect "each other's mission and legitimacy" and to pledge not to "demean or undermine each other's institutions, leaders, representatives, effectiveness or motives." Both sides also must be "dedicated to ensuring that organizing campaigns will not disturb patients or interfere with the delivery of patient care," it says.

Among the document's other "principles for a 'fair and just' organizing model" are: equal access to information, truthful and balanced communications, a pressure-free environment, a fair and expeditious process, meaningful enforcement of the local agreement, and honoring employee decisions.

"This document offers 'guidance and options,' not easy answers," Cardinal McCarrick said. "It calls for similar dialogue and agreement at the local level, recognizing that principles are often more clear in high-level discussions than in the midst of local realities and personalities, especially where there is real pain and anger resulting from previous or ongoing disputes and tactics."

He also said the document "offers options and alternatives rather than commandments and mandates."

Among the participants in the consultation that began in December 2006 were Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association; John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO; Dennis Rivera, chairman of the health care sector of the Service Employees International Union; and Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

John Feerick, former dean of the Fordham School of Law and executive director of the Feerick Center for Social Justice and Dispute Resolution at Fordham, and his staff facilitated the discussions.

Feerick called the document "a tribute to the commitment made by these leaders to hear each other out on these difficult issues."

Sister Carol said Catholic health care leaders believe that "the greatest resource of Catholic health care" is its workers and said the new document "serves first and foremost the employees, but also management."

She cautioned against assumptions about how the document would apply in any particular situation and said participants in the consultation were careful "not to make a judgment on any individual situation when we don't have all the information."

Sweeney, participating in the conference call from Brussels, Belgium, said he and other members of the consultation group had been "determined to make this a successful dialogue."

"The theme that runs through all this is the workers' right to organize as part of church teaching," he said.

Rivera said he was "very proud of the process" and expressed confidence that Catholic health care employees -- if offered a choice free from pressure, harassment or intimidation -- will choose to be represented by unions.

He said he had "nothing but the highest expectations that these guidelines will be adhered to by the majority of Catholic organizations."

In a foreword to the document, Bishop Murphy said past instances "of conflict and controversy surrounding Catholic health care and labor have diminished Catholic values, health care ministry, the labor movement and our common commitment to a fair and just workplace."

"It is time to renew our focus on the heart of Catholic health care, the patients we serve and the workers who provide the care," he added. "This will require restraint and cooperation, new attitudes and behaviors by all those in our health care ministry -- workers and managers, bishops and consumers."

Cardinal McCarrick stressed, however, that the document was not binding on bishops, hospital systems or unions.

"We're not in a position to bind," he said. "We're not an agency to which any of those groups has pledged allegiance."