A small crowd of health-care workers from a big nonprofit hospital chain tried to deliver a letter to their boss one bright morning last week. The letter contained a plea on behalf of the 61 workers who signed it: They wanted a meeting. Since the beginning of the year, they say, their efforts to form a union have been blocked—skillfully and repeatedly—by their employer.
The cluster of workers trotted from the CVS on Main Street in Orange to a lovely plantation-style brick building a couple of blocks away. They rang the bell.
An elderly woman poked her head out, clearly flustered by the 18 guests on the front steps. The group asked to speak with the Mother Superior.
It was like something out of a Michael Moore film—except that instead of Roger Smith or Charlton Heston, the workers were looking for Sister Katherine Gray, chairwoman of the board of directors for the St. Joseph Health System.
"She's not available," the woman told the group on the steps of the Mother House.
One of the group asked if they could see another sister.
"No. No. No one is available," they were told. They handed her the letter and were promised it would be delivered to Sister Katherine.
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange trace their roots back to 17th-century France; the order is well-known for a solid record of commitment to the poor. They've marched with Cesar Chavez and supported janitors' and garment workers' union-organization efforts. They opened their first hospital in Eureka in 1920 after the big flu epidemic of 1918, giving birth to a health-care system that is now 14 hospitals strong and served just more than 2 million patients last year.
The St. Joseph Health System says it endorses its employees' rights to unionize. Yet some nurses say the hospital chain blocked them from forming a union under the powerful California Nurses Association, and service workers in their Northern California hospitals say their efforts to unionize under SEIU United Healthcare Workers West have been repeatedly thwarted.
Hospital representatives say the sisters endorse their employees' rights to choose whether or not they want union representation. They say they honor the federal rules set forth by the National Labor Relations Act.
For David Cox, a soft-spoken pathology technician who has worked for St. Joseph Hospital in Santa Ana for 34 years, the delivery of the letter was a big step. "Our goal today was not to be confrontational," he says in between comments about his respect for the legacy of the order.
"We want to move this forward," Cox says. "We are serious about forming our union."
Cox says he and other health workers at the hospital had never tried to unionize before. But now, he says, "It's become a critical mass of employees who see that there are issues in our industry they can have an impact on together. We're the ones delivering the patient care. We want to be part of the process."
"We want to lay down some ground rules," says Dianna Cooper, a phlebotomist at St. Joseph Hospital who says she has been harassed twice and written up for speaking to people about unionizing during work hours. Employees are asking for a new set of systemwide rules that would allow them to carry out a fair election process and protect them from sophisticated anti-union organizing efforts by the network.
"The nurses' failure is why we're hoping for new rules," says Cox.
In 2002, a group of nurses at St. Joseph Hospital put in a call to the potent California Nurses Association—a union that is now a fixture at most big hospitals in California—and began talking to some of their fellow nurses about unionizing (see Nick Schou's "Critical Mass," Nov. 28, 2002).
Nurses were interested in having an election, says Mary Obershlake, a St. Joseph intensive-care RN. But soon after their first efforts, the hospital began holding "educational sessions" and mandatory meetings on the subject of unions, Obershlake says. She and other workers were paid to attend the sessions and were approached by senior-level management they had never seen or met before, she says. Obershlake, who is as reverent when it comes to the legacy of the order as Cox, says the anti-union effort was frustrating and sophisticated.
"'You're going to hurt the hospital,'" she remembers being told. "Everyone that I can think of, myself included, subscribes to and is committed to the values and the mission of St. Joseph's. When you are given the impression—or told—that what you're trying to do is going to hurt the mission, that really is a tremendous roadblock."
Suddenly, she says, nurses got raises and more paid time off. Soon, co-workers were averting their eyes from Obershlake in the hall, nervous about being caught talking to her. She remembers a conversation with one of the St. Joseph's nuns, whom she had befriended while they volunteered together. The sister urged Obershlake to consider that a union wasn't really necessary for a nurse like her, one with an education and a decent wage.
Priscilla Yaeger, a financial counselor at Santa Rosa Memorial, a St. Joseph system hospital in Northern California, says management intercepted her efforts to discuss unionization with co-workers in 2004. "I was called in with my supervisor and a member of HR, and I was told under no circumstances was I to talk about union organizing," she says. Like the nurses in Orange County, Yaeger and her co-workers also attended mandatory meetings with experts and consultants.
Yaeger, too, remembers a conversation with a sister. "She said, 'You know, when the sisters organized with Cesar Chavez and the farm workers, it was because they were deprived. I feel that the workers at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital who want this are greedy,'" Yaeger says she was told. "That was the word she used: 'greedy.'"
Joseph Norelli, San Francisco-based regional director for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), says Santa Rosa Memorial was found guilty in one unfair labor charge in December 2005. The board found that "people were 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," he said. The hospital settled with the health-care workers' union, which means they agreed to voluntarily remedy the alleged unfair labor practices without admission of guilt, Norelli says. Two other charges filed against the hospital were dismissed in 2005 and earlier this year.
Charges filed with the NLRB against St. Joseph, St. Jude and Mission hospitals within the past four months are still under investigation.
The Santa Rosa incidents, along with signs of intimidation at his own hospital, prompted Cox (who says he has been called in twice and warned by HR) and local area workers to ask for the meeting and for a systemwide fair-election agreement. The old National Labor Relations Act rules, which were drafted in 1935, are outdated and don't hold up against sophisticated intimidation efforts, he and his co-workers believe.
St. Joseph's approved its own code of conduct—a one-page list of what management will and won't do when employees are trying to organize—about six months ago, says senior vice president and chief human-resources officer Bill Murin. "We wanted to be sure we clearly set the guidelines for our organization," he says. Included in that list is a pledge that the entire St. Joseph Health System will not hold mandatory meetings and that it will respect employee choice. Adriana Lynch, vice president of marketing and corporate communications, says she speaks on behalf of all the sisters in stating they honor an employee's right to seek union representation.
When asked if the creation of the code was prompted by employee complaints or by the unfair labor charges that have been filed against several of the system's hospitals, Lynch says, "That code addresses some of the normal worries, regardless of what had happened in the past. The past is a long time ago."
Regarding the complaints of intimidation that employees cited in the letter, Lynch says this was the first she had heard of such incidents. "I can tell you for sure, we want any of these issues to come forward because we want them resolved," she says. "We will not tolerate any oppression to their right to express their opinions."
As for mandatory staff meetings and issues that have occurred at other hospitals, Murin says, "I can't speak directly to that. I've only been here a year." He said he is aware of the pending charges against the three Orange County-area system hospitals.
Murin and Lynch say the sisters and the network don't find it necessary to draw up a new agreement because their code of conduct and the National Labor Relations Act rules are enough. They said other hospitals in the network have had success with their unions, including St. Mary's in Apple Valley and Santa Rosa Memorial (where nurses are represented by a local nurses' union, they said).
Cox says he and his co-workers wish they would have been asked for their input regarding the code of conduct. Murin said he is open to hearing what employees now have to say. His office called Cox within hours of the letter's delivery to schedule a meeting for this week.
Father Angelito Perez, chairman of the Santa Rosa Diocesan Priests' Council in Northern California, says the system's code of conduct is not enough. "There are discrepancies," he says. The Diocese of Santa Rosa raised questions for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange when they heard from parishioners. "As a pastor, I began to hear complaints from parishioners who work there, who are afraid to go public and are intimidated when they ask for help in building a union."
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Earlier this year, 28 clergy members from the Santa Rosa diocese, including Father Perez, and hundreds of other faith-based organization members signed a full-page ad in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat asking the sisters to honor what is known as a "Free and Fair Union Election Process." The diocese also endorses the agreement David Cox and the Orange County St. Joseph's network employees are seeking.
"Catholic health care is not just another economic activity or product; it's a demonstration of our faith and our commitment to human life and dignity," Perez says. "That's where I came from. I have nothing against the sisters." In fact, he says, he has a tremendous respect for their work, making the subject painful for him.
"It's very sad that we even have to talk about this topic," he says. "It's sad in the sense that although they say they're practicing the social teachings of the Church, it doesn't come across to our workers."