SEIU refuses mediation by Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Msgr. John Brenkle to ensure a fair union election at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital

NewsDecember 1, 2009

Statement by Monsignor John Brenkle, pastor of St. Helena Catholic Church

Santa Rosa, Calif.—Local Catholic leader Monsignor John Brenkle today said that SEIU officials are “waging an anti-union campaign” against workers at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, after SEIU rejected an offer by Brenkle and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich to help set ground rules in a contested union election.

Memorial workers asked for an election to join the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) in April. Hospital administration and NUHW both agreed to negotiate ground rules for a fair election in which workers would not face intimidation or negative and deceptive campaigning. But the rival union SEIU intervened, and has blocked any such agreement on ground rules by refusing to participate in negotiations, despite appeals from many North Bay faith leaders and labor leaders.

In an email, Secretary Reich said he was “frankly disappointed that SEIU-UHW did not accept the offer made by Monsignor John Brenkle and myself to mediate election ground rules.”

Monsignor Brenkle issued the following statement:

“Since 2004, I have been aware of workers’ interest in organizing a union at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.  Since 2006, when I learned the extent of hospital management’s anti-union practices, I have worked to ensure that workers have a chance to vote on whether or not to form a union free from fear and intimidation.

“As a Catholic priest experienced with labor law and unions, I have seen firsthand the disconnect between the system’s pro-worker rhetoric and its anti-union practices.  I found the system’s practices to stand in sharp contrast to a long history of Catholic social teaching, and to the values of excellence, dignity, service and justice that the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange hold dear.

“We religious leaders in the Catholic community were not merely critics of SJHS.  The conflict at Memorial forced us to take a look at the practices within our own Santa Rosa Diocese.  In 2007, as a result of this study, our diocese became the first in the nation formally to adopt as policy the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) working paper, A Fair and Just Workplace: Principles and Practices for Catholic Health Care.[1]  This document stresses the importance of the Fair Election Agreement, a process by which all parties in a union election sit down and negotiate ground rules for the duration of the union election campaign.  The guidelines were used in the unionizing efforts of our Catholic cemetery workers.

“Thanks to an extensive campaign by workers at St. Joseph Health System hospitals and their community allies, in the fall of 2008 SJHS declared its willingness to negotiate such a Fair Election Agreement for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election—an important first step towards a just resolution.  I, for one, breathed a sigh of relief.  It seemed that workers at Memorial would finally have a fair process.

“On April 13, a majority of Memorial workers filed a petition with the NLRB seeking union representation with the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). The staff and leadership of NUHW have been standing beside Memorial employees for over five years.  When faced with the worst of internal union politics, they have sometimes had to work in the tradition of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers—as unpaid volunteers.  Together, the staff of NUHW and organizing committee of Memorial workers offer a powerful example of tenacity and commitment in the face of injustice.

“Yet the obstacles have not ceased. Last week, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and I formally offered to mediate between the St. Joseph Health System (SJHS), the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), and the Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers-West (SEIU-UHW).  We hoped to sit down and negotiate ground rules leading to a Fair Election Agreement.  Secretary Reich has also long been an advocate for workers’ rights at St. Joseph Health System, having met with system leaders and testified at a Congressional Hearing on the necessity of fair election agreements in 2007.

“Yet while NUHW and SJHS expressed willingness to sit down and negotiate ground rules, SEIU refused.  Not only has the SEIU itself been waging an anti-union campaign against the NUHW, but SEIU’s refusal to negotiate ground rules has given management at Memorial Hospital the freedom to continue the same anti-union practices we have been working for so long to prevent. The SEIU’s campaign against the NUHW is sadly reminiscent of the anti-union campaign that the Teamsters waged against the United Farm Workers so many years ago.

“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 NUHW.  SEIU’s 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.  The national agreement that SEIU worked tirelessly to establish states quite clearly:  “Questions raised about union jurisdiction should not be used to delay the opportunity for employees to participate in a fair decision-making process or to otherwise circumvent the principles outlined in this document.”[2]

“The SEIU should agree to negotiate a Fair Election Agreement with SJHS and NUHW.  But even if they continue to refuse, our community must unite once more to ensure that workers finally have the free and fair election they deserve.”


  1. This document was formalized and extended in June of 2009 as Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Catholic Health Care and Unions.
  2. Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Catholic Health Care and Unions, p. 11.