Press Democrat: Msgr. John Brenkle on Labor wars at Memorial Hospital

NewsNovember 2, 2009

Monsignor John BrenkleTwo-and-a-half years ago, in this newspaper, I wrote in support of workers’ right to freely choose whether or not to unionize at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, part of the St. Joseph Health System (“Catholic Diocese disagrees with Memorial’s position on union,” Close to Home, May 11, 2007). As a Catholic priest experienced with labor law and unions, and as a close friend of Sister Katherine Gray — the leader of the religious order that sponsors St. Joseph — I saw firsthand the disconnect between the system’s pro-worker rhetoric and its anti-union practices. Thankfully, in response to workers’ ongoing efforts and our community’s persistent calls for justice, St. Joseph recently declared its willingness to negotiate ground rules for a National Labor Relations Board election — an important first step towards a just resolution.

On April 13, a majority of Memorial workers filed a petition with the board seeking union representation with the National Union of Healthcare Workers. Both the union and St. Joseph management have expressed willingness to sit down and negotiate ground rules leading to a fair election agreement.

Yet what should be a time of reconciliation is instead a time of disheartenment, as workers must continue to wait for their day to vote. Sadly, the delay now comes not from management, but by another labor union – the Service Employees International Union – bent on stalling and suppressing workers’ voice. SEIU has been misusing labor law as a means for delaying an election as long as possible and refusing to come to the negotiating table with the other parties.

I am not prepared to take sides in the broader conflict between the unions. I am sure that both parties have made mistakes in their dealings with one another. But as I have written before, the decision about unionization should be in the hands of workers alone. At Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, workers have clearly chosen to cast their lot with the NUHW. SEIU’s continued delay of the workers’ election, and its refusal to agree to ground rules for the election at Memorial, flies in the face of Catholic social teaching and contradicts SEIU’s own national advocacy for exactly the types of agreement it is now trying to thwart.

For the past several years, SEIU has been involved in a national discussion with Catholic hospital systems, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on organizing in Catholic hospitals. The result, “Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Catholic Healthcare and Unions,” was released earlier this year and lays out a “fair and just organizing model” much like the model the Santa Rosa Diocese endorsed in March 2007. But SEIU refuses to adhere to this model here in Santa Rosa.

For those of us in the faith community who have dedicated our efforts to establishing a new model of union elections that truly protect and respect workers’ rights, this is most discouraging. SEIU’s actions undermine the work of labor, Catholic health care employers, clergy and workers who have endeavored for years to achieve ground rules at St. Joseph and other faith-based health systems. This why I have been joined by many members of the faith community in signing a letter to SEIU Vice President Eliseo Medina calling on him to reconsider the union’s position against fair election ground rules.

Labor unions, like all human enterprises, are imperfect institutions. But this should not distract from the principles of dignity, justice and voice for which they stand. I remain firmly committed to seeing workers at Memorial Hospital have the opportunity to vote on whether they wish to unionize. After five years of organizing, it is high time workers get that chance. SEIU should end its puzzling anti-union campaign of delays and enter into discussions with NUHW and St. Joseph to set ground rules for the union election at Memorial based on the principles we have all worked so hard to achieve.

Monsignor John Brenkle is pastor of St. Helena Catholic Church.

Source: Santa Rosa Press Democrat