Santa Rosa election tests Catholic health care labor-management relations
December 15th, 2009
By Rick DelVecchio
A six-year-long union organizing campaign that has drawn national attention as a test of the ground rules for labor-management relations in Catholic health care has reached a milestone as workers at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital vote on whether or not to be represented by a union.
An election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board will be held Dec. 17 and 18 as 664 service and technical workers vote in a three-way contest. Workers will choose whether or not to be represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers or the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, or to remain unrepresented.
The election will go to a runoff if none of the three choices wins a majority. In addition, the result could be delayed if ballots are challenged by one or more parties.
The election is unusual because the two unions vying for workers’ allegiance are campaigning against each other as well as against the employer. The two are accusing one another of thwarting unionization efforts that began at the hospital in 2004.
The presence of contesting unions on the ballot reflects a national split over organizing strategies between two groups of labor leaders in the health care industry on the West Coast. The stakes for the unions and the employer are high because the election is the first attempt to organize service and technical employees in the St. Joseph Health System, which operates 14 facilities in California, Texas and New Mexico.
The break occurred in January when the Washington, D.C.-based Service Employees International put United Healthcare Workers West in trusteeship, citing an investigation that alleged financial and other improprieties.
The evicted officers and employees of UHW responded by forming the National Union of Healthcare Workers and filing a motion for a union election at Santa Rosa Memorial.
The SEIU-UHW in turn accused the new union of improper conduct in the breakaway effort and filed a motion to intervene in the election, resulting in a head-to-head battle between unions.
In a statement Nov. 30, Msgr. John Brenkle, pastor of St. Helena Parish near Santa Rosa and a long-time supporter of workers’ efforts to have a fair election at the hospital, accused the SEIU-UHW of “waging an anti-union campaign” against the newly formed union.
But SEIU-UHW spokesman Steve Trossman said his union is the better choice for workers. He called NUHW a “splinter organization” that lacks the ability and strength to represent the hospital employees.
Asked to comment on the charges leveled by SEIU-UHW, Sal Rosselli, interim president of NUHW, said in an e-mail: “SEIU will say anything to justify what they’ve done to these workers.”
Rosselli said “there is no justification—ever—for an organization that purports to be a union to spend workers’ dues money attacking other workers.” He charged that SEIU “made a decision more than a year ago to abandon these workers for political reasons.”
The election is the latest phase in an extended campaign by organized labor that centers on how unionization efforts are governed at St. Joseph Health System hospitals. Labor has sought agreement from the hospital chain, run by The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, on election rules that respect Catholic social teaching and go further than the guidelines provided for in the National Labor Relations Act.
Catholic teaching requires that workers have freedom of choice in deciding who, if anyone, should represent them, and that they have the right to decide through a free and fair process, according to a 1999 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops working paper.
A June 2009 USCCB document, “Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Catholic Health Care and Unions”, encouraged civil dialogue and urged unions and employers to focus on how workers’ right to decide will be respected. It discouraged management from using traditional anti-union tactics and unions from publicly attacking Catholic health care organizations.
Workers’ freedom of choice has been the central issue in unionization attempts at Santa Rosa Memorial since 2004, with labor supporters complaining that the employer has resisted their efforts to let workers decide. Labor’s frustration over the St. Joseph Health System’s response to unionization efforts at Santa Rosa Memorial and other hospitals made national news in the summer of 2008 when demonstrators protested outside The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange Motherhouse in Orange, California.
The main draw of unionization for workers is that they feel it would give them more of a voice in how they do their jobs, said Nancy Timberlake, a technician at Santa Rosa Memorial and a member of the NUHW organizing committee. Economic issues are secondary, she said.
“The place where I work is the one of the better places to work but I found much difficulty in working with management over the years in having my ideas heard,” Timberlake said.
Success and setbacks
The Santa Rosa Memorial campaign achieved one of its long-term goals when, in 2008, the St. Joseph Health System agreed to discuss election ground rules, according to NUHW. That October, union organizers at the hospital began gathering workers’ signatures in support of an election. By January, they had enough names to put the question of unionization to a vote.
However, in late January the effort was set back when the SEIU placed the West Coast organization in trusteeship. That action, and the SEIU’s later intervention in the election sought by the new union, halted the progress that workers had been making toward negotiating ground rules, Timberlake said.
“The irony of the whole thing is the employer said they would not sit down with us,” Timberlake said. “They would only discuss ground rules with both unions.”
The employer had agreed to negotiate guidelines with any union that showed it had standing to represent employees.
“There were two unions that demonstrated a show of standing,” Kevin Andrus, a spokesman for the St. Joseph Health System, said. “We agreed that we would sit down with both of those unions and work out guidelines between the three of us. The SEIU refused to meet with us and the NUHW and thus we were not able to negotiate.”
In September, the North Bay Labor Council urged SEIU-UHW to either withdraw from the contest or agree to ground rules in order not to delay a decision on union representation.
The union later rejected an offer by Msgr. Brenkle and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich to help set election ground rules, Msgr. Brenkle said in his in Nov. 30 statement.
“Not only has the SEIU itself been waging an anti-union campaign against the NUHW,” Msgr. Brenkle said, “but SEIU’s refusal to negotiate ground rules has given management the freedom to continue the same anti-union practices we have been working for so long to prevent.”
The employer, Msgr. Brenkle told Catholic San Francisco, never agreed to USCCB ground rules but pledged not to have mandatory pre-election meetings or call meetings for the sole purpose of discussing the union.
But Msgr. Brenkle said he has been concerned about the employer’s actions leading up to the election. “The major disappointment is a Catholic institution would be so aggressively anti-union,” he said.
Msgr. Brenkle has urged the formation of a citizens’ oversight committee to monitor the election and is offering the workers a word of advice.
“Whatever union you choose,” he said, “keep on eye on the union as well as management.”
The St. Joseph Health System’s stance in the election has been strictly neutral and factual, spokesman Andrus said.
“We support our employees’ right to make an informed decision and to choose for themselves whether or not they would like to be represented by a union, and if they so choose, what union that should be.”
From December 18, 2009 issue of Catholic San Francisco.