VIEWPOINT: Another side of a union conflict

In recent years St. Joseph Health System has been the subject of advertising by labor unions accusing us of conducting a campaign of intimidation and harassment against our employees who want a union. We have been labeled as "antiunion."

These advertisements often do not identify common ground among health care leaders and union leaders, the specific points of disagreement, and the challenges that call for new frameworks to better understand and discern these issues.

It is important to uncover the more complex roots that would allow a clearer understanding of these ongoing disputes.

St. Joseph Health System and union leaders are in fundamental agreement about several points: The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, Calif., and St. Joseph Health System have a long tradition of providing excellent care and are public advocates for a reformed health care system. The union movement is an important voice that has positively influenced the lives of workers subject to harsh working conditions and substandard pay. St. Joseph Health System, as a Catholic organization, is called to strive for a just and fair workplace. We promote employee participation in the work environment. We ensure employee safety and well-being and just compensation and benefits. While management may believe a healthy work environment exists, employees may still choose to organize and bargain collectively. That choice is fundamental in Catholic social teaching. In whatever choices workers make, they should seek to insure that the mission of Catholic health care remains central to the workplace. The goal should be to build an organization devoted to quality, service and the advancement of well-being.

The essential conflict is that union and health care leaders fundamentally disagree about the process that guarantees worker choice in an environment free of intimidation.

An essential component of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is the secret ballot that allows employees to make their choice free from intimidation. Union leaders argue this board is biased and allows management to delay and thwart efforts to organize. If an employer chooses to act this way, it can indeed lead to injustice. Has St. Joseph Health System been such an employer? Absolutely not. We believe the presence of five unions in several of our facilities, which were elected using the NLRB, is a good indicator of our support for our employees' rights to organize.

As we engaged in dialogue with theologians, academics and union leaders over a yearlong process, we decided to go a step beyond the NLRB process to further promote fairness by creating our code of conduct. This code is designed to ensure management has clear expectations for how to act prior to, during and following a union campaign. We work diligently to act in accordance with this code.

The greatest difficulty is identifying a process that supports all employees, those who want to organize and those who do not. Employees who want to organize seek out the help of large unions with ample resources to support their efforts. But for employees who do not want to organize, where do they turn to be heard? Management cannot respond to these employees because we must remain neutral. To ensure this protection, the NLRB has required that a union "show standing" by demonstrating they represent at least 30 percent of employees in a bargaining unit.

Today, several unions are promoting what they term "free and fair election agreements." They approach employers, like St. Joseph Health System, and ask us to negotiate such an agreement prior to demonstrating their "standing." This has been the single point of contention that we have not been able to move beyond. We believe it is our responsibility to strive for the free choice of all employees. We have committed to acting justly in a campaign and election process once standing is demonstrated. We believe this is a faithful living out of Catholic social teaching.

Some unions have chosen to engage in "corporate campaigns," the point of which is to pressure an organization to sign these election agreements by compromising an organization's reputation. The intent is to "shame" the organization through an extended public campaign that causes such distress the organization capitulates to demands.

This shaming is what we at St. Joseph Health System object to most strongly. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange have been the subject of such an attack. Armed with half-truths, union leaders have represented the actions of the health system as intimidating and harassing. What has been surprising is the lack of due diligence on the part of other Catholic leaders to explore and get the facts. People have taken a public position on our actions without a single conversation to explore whether there are facts behind the accusations. How is this compatible with dignity and justice?

One must act with honor. First, we refuse to retaliate, even though employees and community members have asked us to engage in like-for-like advertising. Second, we are acting out of our conviction by demonstrative action. We have continued to engage in active dialogue with those who have different views from our own in a hope to find a solution that will result in unity and reconciliation. Finally, we must use love as an agent for radical change. In this, we turn to Christ as our example.

Many of our employees may choose to be organized, and we will work steadfastly and in good faith to fully respond to our duty to create a fair and just workplace. Or our employees may decide that they have such a workplace without a union. Either way, the choice must be theirs.

Deborah A. Proctor is president and CEO of St. Joseph Health System, Orange, Calif.

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