Obama Lets the Nuns at St. Joseph's Have It

There seems to be some confusion out there regarding a band of courageous Catholic nuns turned anti-union, the staff who now work at their multi-hospital system and the big union trying to organize them. Just to add more spice to the mix, Barack Obama has now chimed in, calling on the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange to sit down with SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, the union that's been trying to organize workers at several of their hospitals for several years, and draw up an election agreement. Union organizers and hosptial workers held a vigil in front of Mission Hospital last night for a recently fired worker and read Obama's statement.

In the spirit of debate season, and the post-debate fact-check flurry that clarifies the unclear for us (especially those vapid Palin-isms), we've compiled some oft repeated statements made over the last year by SJHS that have no doubt confused a lot of workers at St. Joseph's hospitals who aren't sure who to believe anymore.

Our analysis after the jump...

Here's where the big company (14 hospitals, two states) and the big union (140,000 members, many states) have been stuck for some time now: The union wants to negotiate what's known as a “free and fair election agreement” with the nuns. The agreement would lay down the rules for how the two would proceed with the union campaign and possible elections at the hospitals. The rules in these agreements are generally not that different than the rules laid out by the National Labor Relations Board.

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The main difference between this agreement and the standard NLRB rules is time: grievances filed against either the union or the company for violating the set of election rules the two established together, would be processed by an election officer or an arbitrator agreed on by both sides to preside over disputes under the agreement. Disputes would be processed by this arbitrator in two to 14 days, way faster than the current six-week to six-month period it takes for a grievance to make its way through an overburdened and understaffed National Labor Relations Board. Like Barack (or his writers) said in his statement: "I understand that the sisters and their hospital managers insist that the workers in their hosptials can file for an NLRB election, but the NLRB process is deeply flawed." He knows it's a mess.

The union believes this long wait gives companies more time to intimidate and influence employees nervous about the union. The nuns say the union is trying to force them to sign “an exclusive mass organizing agreement” that that would bind their employees' hands behind their backs and curtail their rights to a secret ballot election under the National Labor Relations Act. They say they'd like to stick to the standard rules as laid out by the National Labor Relations Board and so have resisted entering into negotiations for such an agreement since last year.

There's nothing illegal about the type of agreement the union is seeking to negotiate with the hospital system and it would in no way hamper employees' rights or ban a secret ballot election. Other hospitals have done it. In fact, when any two sides finish drawing up these types of agreements, they submit them to the National Labor Relations Board for consent.

Curiously, in moves akin to what is now becoming Governor Palin's signature style, St. Joseph's Mother Superior Katherine Gray and hospital chain CEO Deborah Proctor, have reverted in interview after interview, letter after letter and ad after ad, to a set of statements that either deliberately or cluelessly fudge the facts.

For example:

NUNS: (Official, oft repeated formal statement): "We support our employees' right to choose for themselves, rather than unions or management choosing for them. This is not about whether employees should have a right to organize – we strongly believe they should. This is about the way employees could be organized. We believe it should be through the national labor process, and not through the exclusive mass organizing agreement the SEIU/UHW seeks."

FACT : St. Joseph Healthcare System, the administrative body that oversees the nuns' 90-year-old hospital operation, has hired anti-union consulting firms and counsel in the last several years. They've sought the counsel of the Burke Group, and of Cruz and Associates, firms that happily brand themselves: "union avoidance consultants." They hired Prism Performance Systems to conduct focus groups with employees about work related issues – pay, equipment, staffing, etc. Only problem is that Prism maintains strategic ties with IRI Consultants to Management, a firm which says openly on its website that it can help companies: “Assess vulnerabilities to union organizing or a corporate campaign.” Although the hospital system said unionization was not discussed in focus groups with employees, they agreed to stop working with Prism/IRI Management Consultants once the ties were discovered.

NUNS: “...We believe it should be through the national labor process, and not through the exclusive mass organizing agreement the SEIU/UHW seeks."

FACT: A lot of people, including clergy members, members of their own order and now Obama, have called on the nuns to stop pretending the agreement is something other than what it is: a few pages that both parties will design, draw up and sign together. It is not exclusive, other unions may sign on to the agreement and campaign during the same time as SEIU, allowing employees to elect the union of their choice or no union at all during a secret ballot election.

NUNS (from the Mission Viejo Dispatch): “[Carol Aaron, Vice President of Labor and Employee Relations for St Joseph’s] describes the current union activity as a “corporate campaign” trying to force St Joseph’s to adopt a union on behalf of all employees without a vote of the employees.”

FACT: The agreement would in no way abolish a secret ballot election since the “rules” that are laid down in such agreements detail how a secret ballot election would proceed, including date, time, place, who would supervise it and who would count the ballots (an NLRB officer, for example). NUNS (from a recent editorial in the OCR defending their position): “...Though it would make organizing easier for the union, signing [the agreement] would dilute the federally protected rights or [sic] our employees because it could take the decision away from them about whether they even want an election for representation, and freeze out other unions … ."

FACT: Such agreements still require the standard card signing procedure that's part of the National Labor Relations Board election proecedure where a minimum 30 percent of employees must sign on in support of a union before a secret ballot election is even authorized. The agreement would not take away this provision and would in no way eliminate a secret ballot initiative.

The hospital system and the union could include a provision for other unions to sign on to the same agreement and campaign simultaneously or create their own agreements with the hospital. Other unions would not be “frozen out.”

NUNS (a letter sent to employees from Sister Katherine Gray and Deborah Proctor 5/2007): “Some unions, however, are asking employers such as SJHS to agree to a different process: one they are calling a “fair election” or neutrality agreement. You may wonder why SJHS would not simply sign such an agreement. The reason is that we believe it would be improper for us to sign any agreement that gives away or limits in any way the legally protected rights guaranteed to all employees.”

FACT: No one is asking the hospital system to simply sign a dotted line. We've looked into this. A lot. And what the nuns, namely Sister Katherine Gray and hospital CEO Deborah Proctor, either don't understand or keep deliberately fudging is the fact that they are not being asked to sign some premeditated, binding agreement drawn up by the union without the hospital's input. They are being asked to negotiate an agreement together with the union that would lay out the rules for how the two big, influential bodies would proceed with a campaign and elections and what the procedure for handling grievances during that time would be. Again: the union's interest here is time. Less time in between grievances means less time for the company to unduly influence employees.

*Photo: Wilfredo Benitez-Rivera


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