The Sisters of St. Joseph, a Roman Catholic order of nuns, sponsors a system of 14 hospitals and employs 20,000 workers in three states. The Service Employees International Union wants to organize in these hospitals. After five years, the hospital and the union have reached an impasse as to the rules of the election.
The irony is that in the 1970’s, this order supported the unionization of farm laborers, and it may be that the hospital management position opposing the union is in stark contrast to Roman Catholic teaching affirming the rights of workers to organize.
In practical terms, the stakes are about 9,000 employees of eight of the nine St. Joseph hospitals in California, essentially all the workers except doctors, nurses and operating engineers. The impasse between the union and the hospital system involves the rules for holding an election on whether, and by whom, those employees want to be represented in collective bargaining.
Such a thumbnail description, however, cannot possibly convey the visceral heat of the conflict. This showdown between former comrades goes well beyond the usual labor-management confrontation with its ritualized drama of each antagonist playing tough before sensibly settling. On both sides of the wrought-iron fence at the Mother House, the mutual senses of betrayal and hypocrisy run deep and personal.
Beyond those emotions is an intense debate about whether a community of nuns is violating the Catholic Church’s teaching on social justice. Pressing home that point, the union has lined up public support from many priests and appealed directly to California bishops, a tactic that has particularly inflamed the sisters.
Some of the workers most involved in the drive, like Gilbert Zamora, used to take their families to Mass in the Mother House on Christmas and Easter. Carmelo Gutierrez, a Catholic and a 14-year employee at a St. Joseph’s hospital, said simply of the nuns, “We thought they were just.”
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Kevin Murphy, the health system’s vice president for theology and ethics, characterized the resistance to the union-recognition effort as consistent with Roman Catholic teachings. The papal encyclical, “Rerum Novarum,” issued in 1891, lent the Vatican’s moral force to the labor movement, and has been followed over the decades by similar pronouncements. Mr. Murphy, however, emphasized the concept of individual choice, including the choice to spurn a union. (Unions do, though, represent workers in some St. Joseph’s hospitals.)
“The foundation of the tradition is the human dignity of the individual,” Mr. Murphy said. “First book of Genesis, man and woman are created in the image and likeness of God and invited to co-create with God. There is human dignity. That’s the strand within this tradition of how important human dignity of the individual is.”
The headwaters of the present struggle go back to 2003, when employees in a St. Joseph system hospital in Santa Rosa, Calif., approached the service employees union about representing them. The union had recently won the right to represent workers of Catholic Healthcare West, another hospital system.
Over the next few years in Santa Rosa, the essential battle lines emerged. The St. Joseph system, while insisting that its conditions were so generous that no union was needed, was nonetheless bound by federal law to have a recognition election.