A Union-Busting Habit

The sisters who run St. Joseph Health System are often pro-labor—but apparently not at their hospitals

A small crowd of health-care workers from a big nonprofit hospital chain tried to deliver a letter to their boss one bright morning last week. The letter contained a plea on behalf of the 61 workers who signed it: They wanted a meeting. Since the beginning of the year, they say, their efforts to form a union have been blocked—skillfully and repeatedly—by their employer.

The cluster of workers trotted from the CVS on Main Street in Orange to a lovely plantation-style brick building a couple of blocks away. They rang the bell.

An elderly woman poked her head out, clearly flustered by the 18 guests on the front steps. The group asked to speak with the Mother Superior.

Sisters, can you spare a meeting?  Photo courtesy of Greg Maron.
Sisters, can you spare a meeting? Photo courtesy of Greg Maron.

It was like something out of a Michael Moore film—except that instead of Roger Smith or Charlton Heston, the workers were looking for Sister Katherine Gray, chairwoman of the board of directors for the St. Joseph Health System.

"She's not available," the woman told the group on the steps of the Mother House.

One of the group asked if they could see another sister.

"No. No. No one is available," they were told. They handed her the letter and were promised it would be delivered to Sister Katherine.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange trace their roots back to 17th-century France; the order is well-known for a solid record of commitment to the poor. They've marched with Cesar Chavez and supported janitors' and garment workers' union-organization efforts. They opened their first hospital in Eureka in 1920 after the big flu epidemic of 1918, giving birth to a health-care system that is now 14 hospitals strong and served just more than 2 million patients last year.

The St. Joseph Health System says it endorses its employees' rights to unionize. Yet some nurses say the hospital chain blocked them from forming a union under the powerful California Nurses Association, and service workers in their Northern California hospitals say their efforts to unionize under SEIU United Healthcare Workers West have been repeatedly thwarted.

Hospital representatives say the sisters endorse their employees' rights to choose whether or not they want union representation. They say they honor the federal rules set forth by the National Labor Relations Act.

For David Cox, a soft-spoken pathology technician who has worked for St. Joseph Hospital in Santa Ana for 34 years, the delivery of the letter was a big step. "Our goal today was not to be confrontational," he says in between comments about his respect for the legacy of the order.

"We want to move this forward," Cox says. "We are serious about forming our union."

Cox says he and other health workers at the hospital had never tried to unionize before. But now, he says, "It's become a critical mass of employees who see that there are issues in our industry they can have an impact on together. We're the ones delivering the patient care. We want to be part of the process."

"We want to lay down some ground rules," says Dianna Cooper, a phlebotomist at St. Joseph Hospital who says she has been harassed twice and written up for speaking to people about unionizing during work hours. Employees are asking for a new set of systemwide rules that would allow them to carry out a fair election process and protect them from sophisticated anti-union organizing efforts by the network.

"The nurses' failure is why we're hoping for new rules," says Cox.

In 2002, a group of nurses at St. Joseph Hospital put in a call to the potent California Nurses Association—a union that is now a fixture at most big hospitals in California—and began talking to some of their fellow nurses about unionizing (see Nick Schou's "Critical Mass," Nov. 28, 2002).

Nurses were interested in having an election, says Mary Obershlake, a St. Joseph intensive-care RN. But soon after their first efforts, the hospital began holding "educational sessions" and mandatory meetings on the subject of unions, Obershlake says. She and other workers were paid to attend the sessions and were approached by senior-level management they had never seen or met before, she says. Obershlake, who is as reverent when it comes to the legacy of the order as Cox, says the anti-union effort was frustrating and sophisticated.

"'You're going to hurt the hospital,'" she remembers being told. "Everyone that I can think of, myself included, subscribes to and is committed to the values and the mission of St. Joseph's. When you are given the impression—or told—that what you're trying to do is going to hurt the mission, that really is a tremendous roadblock."

Suddenly, she says, nurses got raises and more paid time off. Soon, co-workers were averting their eyes from Obershlake in the hall, nervous about being caught talking to her. She remembers a conversation with one of the St. Joseph's nuns, whom she had befriended while they volunteered together. The sister urged Obershlake to consider that a union wasn't really necessary for a nurse like her, one with an education and a decent wage.

Priscilla Yaeger, a financial counselor at Santa Rosa Memorial, a St. Joseph system hospital in Northern California, says management intercepted her efforts to discuss unionization with co-workers in 2004. "I was called in with my supervisor and a member of HR, and I was told under no circumstances was I to talk about union organizing," she says. Like the nurses in Orange County, Yaeger and her co-workers also attended mandatory meetings with experts and consultants.

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