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?

Adriana Lynch, vice president of corporate communications, told the Weekly in August that she could not speak to the alleged violations by previous management, but she reiterated that current management is committed to "abide by our code of conduct."

"[The] code addresses some of the normal worries, regardless of what had happened in the past," she said.

The NLRB recently ruled on one of several pending unfair-labor-practice charges against area St. Joseph hospitals. St. Joseph Hospital settled with the SEIU in a surveillance case filed in April, agreeing to voluntarily remedy the alleged unfair labor practices without admission of guilt by posting signs for 60 days at the hospital, promising not to "tell off-duty employees who are engaged in peaceful handbilling to leave the outside nonworking areas of our property, nor will we write down the names of off-duty employees engaged in peaceful handbilling." The notice also says management at the hospital promises not to "interfere with, restrain, or coerce" workers.

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

Sister Katherine and her management team have remained clear on their position regarding the unionizing process for their hospitals: They will stick to the federal NLRB rules for a secret-ballot election process. After the violations that occurred up north, workers in the northern and southern hospitals say they don't trust the standard process anymore. They, and the union, are asking for an additional agreement that would be signed between the union and the health system preceding the secret-ballot election.

These pre-election agreements, according to former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, are now fairly common between unions and corporations. The agreement would bring in an arbitrator, chosen by both sides, who would resolve any conflicts leading up to the election in 24 to 48 hours, much faster than the months it usually takes the NLRB to rule on a case. Both parties would agree to let the arbitrator, not the NLRB, have the final say in disputes between them, but employees would retain their right to go through the NLRB.

In the full-page color ads that ran in The Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat and several other newspapers, Sister Katherine says the union's "corporate campaigns are designed to convince multihospital systems to sign front-end agreements that we believe give away the rights of employees to be informed by both sides and to exercise their right to choose in a secret election ballot as outlined by the NLRB."

"I honestly don't know what she's talking about," says Reich, who served under President Bill Clinton and is now professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. Reich says he met with Sister Katherine and system CEO Deborah Proctor several months ago to discuss the issue.

"I worry that the management there is being seriously misled about what's at stake. All that the employees are seeking here is simply a process for resolving differences that may come up on the way toward making a decision about whether they want a union. It's very common. Rather than taking away employees' rights, it enhances them," he says of election agreements.

"The agreement is completely negotiable and is between the union and the employer," says Greg Maron, Orange County assistant director of organizing for the SEIU-UHW. "It's largely saying that the employer won't use the power that they have to have an intimidating conversation with people. Nothing changes as far as the employees' federal rights with this agreement."

"Wise employers set up a process for quickly resolving issues," says Reich. "You simply can't rely on Washington for every step along the way." Reich says he had a good meeting with Proctor and Sister Katherine, but he continues to be perplexed by the situation. "I would have expected this management, given its historic concern for working people, to have jumped at the chance to work with employees and negotiate a fair process. . . . I don't understand where their intransigence comes from. After all, this is an order of nuns that has been very supportive of human rights. They supported Cesar [Chavez] and the farm workers. But for reasons that escape me, they seem to have a complete blind spot when it comes to their own employees."

"My understanding is that [Sister Katherine] thinks that it is not right to have an external body, the union, interfering in the relationship between management, which consists of sisters and those appointed by the sisters, and the workers," Leder says of a conversation she had with Sister Katherine after she sent the open letter.

"I said that I thought that was profoundly patriarchal. Even in a wonderful institution, the workers need protection from management because management has all the marbles and each worker has one marble. The union is simply a structure in which the employees are able to group themselves and have collective bargaining and have a voice that is larger than a single voice crying in the wilderness."

There is also a particular Catholic Church mentality that is hard to unravel, says Leder. "It is very difficult in an utterly patriarchal system like the Catholic Church not to be mentally patriarchal. Or matriarchal . . . It is very hard not to do this because what does the Church say? The Church says, 'We know better than you what's good for you.'"

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