Sister Knows Best

If the nuns in charge of the St. Joseph Health System are so pro-labor,why are some of their employees determined to unionize?

Judith Remy Leder sits in a dust-white chair in her living room and looks out her sliding glass doors. Her thoughtful gaze falls to her hands. "I never thought that I would be in this situation with the sisters," says the former member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange.

Leder, who is also a retired English professor, first encountered the group of nuns at Mater Dei High School in the late 1950s. "The sisters were really a remarkable group. They were very warm and loving and kind and full of laughter. I think all of us were quite drawn to a life that would produce that kind of sweetness and goodness."

Leder joined the convent after high school and stayed with the order for 15 years. She's still close to the women in her convent group and feels she is indelibly marked by the values she learned while a part of the community in Orange.

Lab techs, receptionists, respiratory therapists and other workers at St. Joseph Health System donít feel like they can talk openly about forming a union. clockwise from top left: Drina Robledo, David Cox, Noel Paraiso, Janice Smith, Mary Grijalva, Dianna Cooper. Photo by Jennie Warren

But in the past couple of months, Leder has found herself in the troubling position of having to confront old friends and colleagues over an issue that she says she cannot ignore: the sisters' alleged interference with union-organizing efforts at their network of Catholic hospitals.

It's not the first time Catholic hospital groups and union organizers have battled over unionizing efforts. But what makes this tale unusual is the Sisters of St. Joseph's public pro-workers'-rights track record.

During the 1956 Delano Grape Strike in the Central Valley, the Catholic community ruptured over who to support: Cesar Chavez and the farm workers—Chavez was Catholic—or the landowners, many of whom were also Catholic. The Sisters of St. Joseph not only went the way of Chavez and the farm workers long before the Church officially turned its tide, but they also marched along with them. "The community as a whole really did support that effort for years and years," Leder says. "I didn't eat grapes for a really long time."

The sisters also supported janitors' efforts to unionize during the Justice for Janitors campaign, launched by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in the 1980s. The SEIU is the same union the sisters and their health system are at odds with today.

Although they have repeatedly stated—in letters to employees and in advertisements—that they "honor their employees' right to choose" with regard to unionization, Sister Katherine Gray, chairwoman of the St. Joseph Health System, and her management team have also made it clear they "prefer a direct working relationship" with their employees. Spokespeople for Sister Katherine have turned down numerous interview requests for this story.

It is this "direct relationship" with the sisters and management that many of the employees who are seeking a union election feel has eroded over the years. Back when David Cox started working in the pathology lab in 1973, it was common to see a sister or two walking through the halls who knew his name. "It was a different time," he says. The hospital system was smaller then. It was not the 14-hospital, 21,000-employee enterprise it has become. With growth comes change, and the system has had to implement layers of management to help run what is now a multibillion-dollar nonprofit system that sees an average of 2 million patients per year.

The tension has been building at the St. Joseph Health System hospitals in Orange County since lab technicians, janitorial workers and respiratory therapists, among others, first started talking about unionizing in February. Since then, St. Joseph workers in Northern California have joined forces with Southern California workers; clergy members from up north ran ads calling on the system to temper what they call an aggressive anti-union stance. The conflict is now at an impasse.

On Sept. 13, Judith Leder tried to help both sides make a breakthrough, hand-delivering a letter to Sister Katherine from several former St. Joseph nuns and other community members. She also mailed copies to the entire St. Joseph community of sisters. That same day—by coincidence—Sister Katherine ran full-page, open-letter ads in seven major newspapers in Northern and Southern California stating her position on union organizing and on the SEIU.

Leder's letter, with research and citations, called into question the network's behavior toward their employees' unionizing efforts and their hiring of known union-avoidance consulting firms. It was the first time former sisters came out as a group, stating that they were "deeply saddened to find that the community's health system has seemingly become part of corporate opposition to the rights of workers." Sixteen former members signed the letter; four more have joined since then.

Leder was contacted by Sister Katherine a few weeks after she delivered the letter, and they met for coffee. "I thought it was very big of her to call me. . . . She really is a decent, good woman," says Leder. But Leder was frank: "I said to her that if I were still in the community today, I would leave over this."

*     *     *

The current conflict is the latest round in a fight that started several years ago at the system's Northern California hospitals, when service workers there began unionizing efforts in late 2004 (see "A Union-Busting Habit," Aug. 31) and which is predated by nurses' organizing efforts in 2002. Workers say they tried to go through the election process using only the federal rules under the National Labor Relations Act, but they found the intimidation overwhelming.

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