Union, hospital system battle puts Catholic leaders on opposite sides

SAN FRANCISCO – When Monsignor John Brenkle heard of the labor-management trouble brewing at Catholic-run Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, he knew he had a touchy problem on his hands.

Workers were telling him that the hospital’s owner – the St. Joseph Health System, under the direction of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange – was strongly anti-union.

But Monsignor Brenkle, pastor at St. Helena Parish in Santa Rosa and an experienced hand at labor law, told Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the neighboring San Francisco Archdiocese, that he knew the sisters as having an exemplary record in battles for farmworker rights in the 1960s and for “the tremendous amount of good work they do for the poor.”

What’s more, he and the order’s general superior and hospital system’s board chair, Sister Katherine Gray, were friends.

Monsignor Brenkle put the question to the Santa Rosa diocesan priests’ council, hoping that its involvement would help resolve the trouble and prevent it from escalating into an open fight within the church.

The council met and heard from two representatives from the hospital and two from United Healthcare Workers West, a unit of the Service Employees International Union, which has been trying to organize workers at Santa Rosa Memorial for the last several years.

The union filed a National Labor Relations Board complaint in March 2005 alleging the employer had used intimidation and threats during a workplace campaign leading up to an election on union representation.

John Borsos, a union vice president, said the conflict started in 2004 when the employer hired a “union avoidance firm” in response to the organizing campaign.

As a guide to sorting out the claims the council used a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops working paper called “A Fair and Just Workplace: Principles and Practices for Catholic Health Care.”

The result of dialogue among bishops, unions and employers in 1998 and 1999, the paper noted “the wounds, anger and misunderstandings” that can arise from local conflicts, and guided employers and unions on how to work out differences in the spirit of Catholic social teaching.

Workers have the right to decide if and how they will be represented in the workplace, and coercion of any kind should be avoided, the paper stated.

In 2007 the Santa Rosa priests’ council recommended the paper to Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel F. Walsh, who adopted it as diocesan policy. The policy would come into play within months when a union approached the diocese about organizing cemetery workers.

Rather than opposing the effort, the diocese arranged for the workers to meet with labor representatives and indicate their preference for or against joining the union.

To Monsignor Brenkle’s dismay, the conflict at Santa Rosa Memorial did not go as well. The meeting with representatives of the two sides left him with questions about whether the Catholic employer was operating in the spirit of the bishops’ guidelines.

He did not choose sides but concluded that the union was “much more enthusiastic” about the guidelines than management.

“That’s all the diocese is looking for, that the process be fair and just,” Monsignor Brenkle said. “Unfortunately, the St. Joseph Health System has not adopted this stance of neutrality. They have been aggressively anti-union.”

Far from reaching agreement on a way to handle their differences, the hospital system and the union have prolonged their battle and now are entrenched in a fight that has attracted the national media to the union’s narrative of a Catholic employer’s performance in light of church teaching. “Nuns versus union,” read a headline on a Wall Street Journal blog.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.