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.

"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."

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.

Sadrac Martinez, a janitorial worker at Mission Hospital who has worked there close to 10 years, noticed a few months ago that he and other co-workers were not seeing overtime hours reflected on their paychecks. Their supervisors, who are outsourced by the health system to third-party Aramark Corporation, would sometimes pay employees in cash when mistakes were found and would urge employees not to go to the hospital's HR department, he says.

One of the biggest issues for Martinez is the increased workload and decreased number of workers in his department, which he believes has led to an overall decline in hospital cleanliness. "There used to be seven people on the night shift, and now there are only two—and the hospital has grown," he says. He worries about the hospital's reputation. "To the hospital, the Aramark managers are good managers because they have a low cost and get the work done. But they don't know how Aramark does it," says Martinez, citing the bigger cleaning areas he and co-workers have been given and Aramark's emphasis on speed.

"We have a limited amount of time to clean between surgeries, approximately five minutes between three of us. Where is the concern for health? A surgery room that is stained and dirty after a surgery needs to be inspected very carefully. Five minutes is not enough time. The cleanliness of the room is not guaranteed in five minutes. If the next patient comes in, and there is bacteria there, they may get infected."

Martinez was suspended earlier this year in a move the union says was motivated because Martinez was vocal about his union support. (Unfair labor charges are pending with the National Labor Relations Board.)

His co-worker at Mission Hospital, Maria Godinez, who works on a janitorial team that has more direct contact with patients, says there needs to be more emphasis on working together as a team with doctors and nurses. "The doctor is as important as the nurse, who is as important as the person cleaning the room so that the patient arrives and doesn't acquire an infection. Our work is also important. But the whole world sees us as beneath them," she says. Godinez, who also went to HR over unpaid overtime hours, was also suspended earlier this year. "I was talking in the parking garage with someone, and some co-workers told them I was talking about the union. Then they suspended me. But I was outside, in the parking garage; it doesn't matter what I was talking about," she says.

Noel Paraiso, a dialysis technician at St. Joseph Hospital who has a reputation for being a kind of unofficial team leader in his department, says his supervisors effectively quieted him down. Paraiso likes to organize: He organized the system's first chapter in the Association of Nephrology Technicians and was interested when he first heard about union-organizing efforts in March. He knew there would be interest among his colleagues, especially in the area of equal pay, so he began talking candidly about the union during breaks and at lunch time.

When Paraiso's picture appeared in the monthly union newsletter, he was called in to meet with a group of supervisors last month. "That's the first time I've ever been called in," he says. He was told that co-workers were complaining that he was being forceful with them to sign a petition, which he denies. He was also told he could no longer post union material at his work station. "It was basically like a warning to me. They didn't make me sign anything." He says he and his fellow Filipino co-workers have been told they cannot speak Tagalog in the break room, but he's defied that rule. "I know my rights," he says.

But, he says, the effect of being called in has been chilling and has made him worry enough about his job to keep quiet. "If they can get to me and have me back off, then the others will follow," he says.

*     *     *

Stories like these have been circulating between system hospitals in Northern and Southern California and have in some cases divided employees over the hospital's organizing policy and overshadowed the sisters' long history of public service.

In an effort to address some of these issues, and following the findings by the NLRB, this summer, health-system managers released a one-page code of conduct to employees, promising them that they would not hold mandatory staff meetings, that they "embraced open and fair discussions," and that information shared about the union would be factual, among other things. They also reiterated their preference for a "direct working relationship."

"We were looking at making sure that we could set guidelines with our management," senior vice president and chief human-resources officer Bill Murin told the Weekly in August. "We developed [the code of conduct] with a multidisciplinary team in the organization." Murin said the team included only management staff. The code, which was finalized by managers in early 2007, does not define disciplinary action for management in the case that its provisions are violated, which 60 employees alleged was continuing to happen as late as August 2007, when they hand-delivered a letter on union letterhead to Sister Katherine.

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.

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.'"

*     *     *

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."

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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