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?

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Following a Weekly story in August about unionizing efforts at St. Joseph Health System, Susie Slayton, who has worked as an employee health assistant and phlebotomist at St. Joseph Hospital for 18 years, posted a letter and asked those who supported the hospital, and not the union, to sign it. Dozens of people signed, she says. But she was dismayed when her letters were taken down by, she presumes, union supporters. "I have seen so much good that I cannot imagine for the life of me how a union could make anything any better for the hospital," she says.

If anything, Slayton says, she's saddened by the way unionizing efforts have divided employees and the "family" she's grown to love over the years. After a recent article in the Register featured a picture of her, she says she received hundreds of comments from co-workers who were proud that she stood up for the hospital. Slayton believes that the grievances aired by employees regarding intimidation on the part of the system are untrue. "I think they're all making it up. I think it's to get their name in the paper or on a flier," she says. "I just don't see it at all."

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

In a previous interview with the Weekly, Bill Murin, St. Joseph's director of human resources pointed out that other unions have been able to successfully organize within the system without an election agreement. Spokesman Kevin Andrus said management did not wish to comment for this article.

Lavon Divine-Leal, a nurse at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka, said she and the nurses at her hospital did succeed in unionizing without an election agreement. "Had you said that I would support a union there, I would have laughed you off the block, as would all of my colleagues," Divine-Leal says of her early days at the hospital. "As time marched on, and deeply committed nurses, both to the community and the hospital, were unable to participate in solutions, or even to be heard on issues of patient care and safety, it became necessary to initiate contact with the [California Nurses Association] and request assistance in organizing a union."

But the fight was hard-won. "Our union battle was uphill every single step and every single minute," she says. "Our hospital hired the mighty Burke Group, to the tune of several million dollars."

Nurses at the Eureka hospital signed their first contract in 2003, but they have been unable to negotiate an election agreement or to organize in Orange County.

It is impossible to know if Sister Katherine's position on the election agreement with the SEIU will change. She and CEO Proctor sent a letter addressed to Priscilla Yaeger at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and David Cox at St. Joseph Hospital, two of the system's most outspoken employees, on Oct. 31, after an Oct. 27 rally staged in front of Sister Katherine's residence, the Mother House. Yaeger and Cox—both of whom claim to have been intimidated by supervisors—have held firm to their belief that employees will not be adequately protected from intimidation without the election agreement.

Cox, Yeager and a group of other employees have scheduled a tentative meeting with Sister Katherine and Proctor for Dec. 11.

The hospital system and Sister Katherine have maintained their position during the past nine months, despite calls on them to negotiate an election agreement by clergy members, former sisters and workers. "I cross my fingers that something reaches her," Leder says.


DALTAN@OCWEEKLY.COM

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