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?

"As soon as we filed for the election, boom, it all started," says Priscilla Yaeger, an outspoken financial counselor at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. Yaeger says the hospital held mandatory meetings, initiated pay raises, and intimidated her and other workers during the 40 or so days leading up to the election.

Employees and the union claimed—as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) later found—that employees were being "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" at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. In the end, the union pulled out of the election, fearing that employees had been unduly influenced to vote a certain way.

"They were family to me, and still are family," says Jo Ann Consiglieri, a former sister who was with the community for 18 years and who signed Leder's letter. "I can't understand the stance they have taken because I know what they do. I know what they stand for."

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

St. Joseph Health System has in the past hired consulting firms known for their union-avoidance techniques. "Our emphasis is labor relations and strategic guidance as it relates to staying union-free through preventive programs as well as counter-recognition and -union-organizing campaigns," reads the Burke Group's website. The Burke Group was hired by the health system in 2002, when nurses were organizing at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka. (The nurses eventually won with an 86 percent majority vote.) The hospital network subsequently severed ties with the Burke Group and two other well-known union-avoidance firms, Cruz and Associates and IRI, as late as mid-2007.

Sister Katherine did inform Leder, however, that the system retains the counsel of Rick Albert, who oversees the unions that do operate in some of their hospitals up north. Albert stated in a profile on his firm's website—which appeared as late as March 2007—that he had expertise in "union avoidance," and he lists St. Joseph Health System as a client. His current profile is identical, but no longer includes the phrase "union avoidance." Albert did not respond to e-mails and a phone call seeking comment for this story.

"I said to [Sister Katherine] that I thought that was the equivalent of putting Julio Gallo in charge of the farm workers!" Leder says.

*     *     *

The sisters of St. Joseph aren't the first Catholic hospital institution to come under scrutiny for alleged anti-union activity. In the late 1990s, Catholic Healthcare West (CHW)—the state's largest nonprofit religious hospital system, with 46 hospitals—and the SEIU became embroiled in a bitter battle over unionization that lasted for four years. The union accused CHW of intimidating its employees and of hiring union-busting consultants. (CHW also hired the Burke Group.) The hospital chain countered with full-page ads in newspapers saying the union was running a "corporate campaign" and insisted they wanted to maintain a direct relationship with their employees. The struggle prompted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue the paper "A Fair and Just Workplace: Principles and Practices for Catholic Healthcare," with the goal of setting up guidelines for Catholic health systems and organizers. Eventually, the hospital and the union agreed to a fair election process, and unions were gradually voted in to a majority of the hospitals.

Despite the stated efforts of St. Joseph's to maintain an open relationship with its employees, many feel the system is just too big for such an arrangement to work. Tales of grievances gone unaddressed have surfaced and circulated throughout various departments at multiple hospitals.

Jan Smith, a respiratory therapist at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton who has been there 11 years, says her department's repeated attempts to get management to deal with short staffing fell on deaf ears for years. The job of respiratory therapists is to delicately administer medicine to patients through a mask that pumps out a fine mist that patients breathe in for 15 minutes at a time. The therapist treats one patient at a time, staying in the room and monitoring the patient until the process is over. Smith says fewer staff and increases in their patient loads were forcing therapists to prioritize treatments; they sometimes had to skip treatments for some patients, and other times masks were placed on multiple patients who were treated at once. "We've talked to them over and over again for the longest time about these issues," she says.

Three years ago, the senior staff in her department got together, made a list and went to their director. "The next thing we know, we're having this big meeting with HR," she says. "Everybody talked; there was literally a podium, and we talked about these issues. And nothing changed." Only recently have things begun to improve in her department, Smith says, and she believes these improvements are linked to the nascent unionizing efforts at the Orange County hospitals. Another example of this, she says, is the recent notice she received in the mail informing her that employees will, for the first time, have their HMO insurance fully covered by the hospital beginning in 2008.

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