A Union-Busting Habit

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

Yaeger, too, remembers a conversation with a sister. "She said, 'You know, when the sisters organized with Cesar Chavez and the farm workers, it was because they were deprived. I feel that the workers at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital who want this are greedy,'" Yaeger says she was told. "That was the word she used: 'greedy.'"

Joseph Norelli, San Francisco-based regional director for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), says Santa Rosa Memorial was found guilty in one unfair labor charge in December 2005. The board found that "people were threatened with adverse consequences, questioned about union sympathy or that of others; and people were promised that if they didn't support the union, they would receive benefits," he said. The hospital settled with the health-care workers' union, which means they agreed to voluntarily remedy the alleged unfair labor practices without admission of guilt, Norelli says. Two other charges filed against the hospital were dismissed in 2005 and earlier this year.

Charges filed with the NLRB against St. Joseph, St. Jude and Mission hospitals within the past four months are still under investigation.

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

The Santa Rosa incidents, along with signs of intimidation at his own hospital, prompted Cox (who says he has been called in twice and warned by HR) and local area workers to ask for the meeting and for a systemwide fair-election agreement. The old National Labor Relations Act rules, which were drafted in 1935, are outdated and don't hold up against sophisticated intimidation efforts, he and his co-workers believe.

St. Joseph's approved its own code of conduct—a one-page list of what management will and won't do when employees are trying to organize—about six months ago, says senior vice president and chief human-resources officer Bill Murin. "We wanted to be sure we clearly set the guidelines for our organization," he says. Included in that list is a pledge that the entire St. Joseph Health System will not hold mandatory meetings and that it will respect employee choice. Adriana Lynch, vice president of marketing and corporate communications, says she speaks on behalf of all the sisters in stating they honor an employee's right to seek union representation.

When asked if the creation of the code was prompted by employee complaints or by the unfair labor charges that have been filed against several of the system's hospitals, Lynch says, "That code addresses some of the normal worries, regardless of what had happened in the past. The past is a long time ago."

Regarding the complaints of intimidation that employees cited in the letter, Lynch says this was the first she had heard of such incidents. "I can tell you for sure, we want any of these issues to come forward because we want them resolved," she says. "We will not tolerate any oppression to their right to express their opinions."

As for mandatory staff meetings and issues that have occurred at other hospitals, Murin says, "I can't speak directly to that. I've only been here a year." He said he is aware of the pending charges against the three Orange County-area system hospitals.

Murin and Lynch say the sisters and the network don't find it necessary to draw up a new agreement because their code of conduct and the National Labor Relations Act rules are enough. They said other hospitals in the network have had success with their unions, including St. Mary's in Apple Valley and Santa Rosa Memorial (where nurses are represented by a local nurses' union, they said).

Cox says he and his co-workers wish they would have been asked for their input regarding the code of conduct. Murin said he is open to hearing what employees now have to say. His office called Cox within hours of the letter's delivery to schedule a meeting for this week.

Father Angelito Perez, chairman of the Santa Rosa Diocesan Priests' Council in Northern California, says the system's code of conduct is not enough. "There are discrepancies," he says. The Diocese of Santa Rosa raised questions for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange when they heard from parishioners. "As a pastor, I began to hear complaints from parishioners who work there, who are afraid to go public and are intimidated when they ask for help in building a union."

Earlier this year, 28 clergy members from the Santa Rosa diocese, including Father Perez, and hundreds of other faith-based organization members signed a full-page ad in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat asking the sisters to honor what is known as a "Free and Fair Union Election Process." The diocese also endorses the agreement David Cox and the Orange County St. Joseph's network employees are seeking.

"Catholic health care is not just another economic activity or product; it's a demonstration of our faith and our commitment to human life and dignity," Perez says. "That's where I came from. I have nothing against the sisters." In fact, he says, he has a tremendous respect for their work, making the subject painful for him.

"It's very sad that we even have to talk about this topic," he says. "It's sad in the sense that although they say they're practicing the social teachings of the Church, it doesn't come across to our workers."

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