Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Practicing what we preach: The Catholic Church and the right to organize

As a Catholic and a union member, one of the things that has always stuck in my craw has been the Church's capacity to preach a mean line about the right of workers to organize and bargain for their economic and other workplace interests while continuing to try to suppress unions in Catholic hospitals and other institutions and refusing to bargain in good faith.

The late Pope John Paul II was a firm supporter of labor, coming from his experience with Solidarność and other unions and their role in securing democracy in his native Poland. This was reflected in his encyclicals such as Laborem Exercens. The United States Catholic Bishops also supported collective bargaining rights in their landmark pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All: "The Church fully supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions. This is a specific application of the more general right to associate. In the words of Pope John Paul II, "The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrial societies." (#104)

Yet this support was not evident in places like Chicago where hospital administrators at Resurrection Health Care systematically engaged in union-busting tactics worthy of the most anti-labor employer.

Today there is a glimmer of hope that change has come. As the article below states, a couple of major labor unions in the health care industry and representatives of the Catholic Church have signed a historic joint document that commits the Church and its institutions to recognizing and not interfering with their employees' right to organize collectively. Only time will tell if the Church will live up to this promise but at least it's a beginning.

Labor unions, Catholic hospitals to end conflict

By Sam Hananel
Associated Press
June 23, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — Labor unions and Catholic leaders have reached an agreement designed to end years of bitter hostilities that often surrounded union efforts to organize workers at Catholic hospitals.

The accord, announced Monday, seeks to apply Catholic teachings that recognize the right of workers to "freely and fairly" decide whether to join a union.

One of the key principles directs both employers and unions to refrain from harassing, threatening, intimidating or coercing workers.

The agreement touches on a thorny situation for Catholic hospitals, some of which have aggressively resisted union organizing amid complaints that their conduct contradicts Catholic doctrine on social justice.

In Chicago, for instance, union leaders have accused hospital officials at Resurrection Health Care of worker intimidation and other unfair tactics to thwart a six-year effort to unionize workers at the company's eight hospitals. The company has denied those claims.

"The central actors in these dramas have to be the workers themselves, that's what we feel is the strength of the document," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., who helped lead the discussions.

Under the agreement, hospital managers agree not to use "traditional anti-union tactics," including hiring firms, known as union-busters, that work with companies to defeat organizing drives. Unions also agree not to publicly attack Catholic health care organizations during labor campaigns.

Nearly 600 Catholic hospitals that employ about 600,000 workers are covered under the agreement. Roughly 15 percent of those workers are currently believed to be union members.

The recommendations do not bind individual bishops, hospitals or unions but provide guidance in how they are expected to conduct themselves during union organizing efforts. Union leaders believe it will be easier to organize workers at the nation's Catholic health centers if hospital managers abide by the agreement.

"The theme that runs through all of this as far as I'm concerned is the emphasis on workers' rights to organize as part of church teachings," said AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.

Parties to the accord include the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Health Association of the United States, the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union.


Photo: Workers and supporters rally at Resurrection Health Care

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