Those seeking to guarantee workers the unfettered right
to unionize have a compelling new example of how it can be done: An agreement
reached in early June by representatives of organized labor and the Catholic
health care system.
It wasn't easily reached. It took more than a decade of
dialogue and sometimes hostile confrontations as union organizers tried to win
collective bargaining rights for the 600,000 workers in the Catholic Church's
600 hospitals and 1,200 other health care facilities across the nation.
The agreement was signed by key church and labor leaders
- AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, national officers of unions representing
health care workers, and officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops,
headed by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, DC.
The signers agreed that unions are "committed to
improving workers' lives and to creating a more just society through leadership
development, economic citizenship, and fuller political participation."
Catholic health care facilities and the bishops who
oversee them are not strictly bound by terms of the agreement, nor are union
organizers. But they are expected to use them as guidelines for their conduct during
organizing drives and union contract negotiations.
The agreement is designed to apply long-standing Catholic
social teachings that recognize the dignity and "just rights of
workers." That includes the right of workers to "freely and
fairly" decide whether to unionize - a right recognized by Pope Benedict
and other Catholic leaders, but frequently violated by management at
Catholic health care facilities.
The agreement could very well be described as a peace
treaty between unions and the health care providers, who would abandon the
aggressive tactics many have used to block employees from unionizing, and
hopefully "ease the pain and damage of past disputes."
Using tactics identical to those of anti-union employers
outside the Catholic health care system,
providers have typically cornered workers individually
to argue against
union representation and ordered them to attend meetings at which employers
raise anti-union arguments without
allowing organizers to present their side. Those tactics would be barred and
employees guaranteed "equal access to information from the union and the
Also barred would be the employer tactics of intimidating
pro-unionemployees by threatening to fire or otherwise penalize them, and
firms that specialize in defeating organizing drives. Neither could employers
claim or imply, as they frequently do, that unionization would lead to pay and
benefit reductions and poor working conditions.
Unions would agree that they also would not harass or
intimidate workers or wage anti-employer campaigns aimed at winning broad
public support for their organizing efforts, as they often have done. Nor would
employers be allowed to seek public support for their anti-union position.
Unions and employers, furthermore, "will respect
each other's mission and not disparage each other's institutions, leaders,
representatives, effectiveness or motives."
The general public certainly would benefit from peaceful
agreements. Catholic facilities are the major health care providers and among
the largest employers in a considerable number of communities. Additionally,
the agreements would pledge both parties to support "affordable and
accessible health care for all."
Once a majority of employees at a particular facility proved
their desire for unionization, either through an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board
or by a show of union membership cards, they'd begin negotiations with
employers on a contract covering their working conditions. Negotiators would
jointly select a neutral party to mediate unresolved issues should they fail to
reach a contract agreement within 30 days.
The AFL-CIO's Sweeney hailed the agreement as a model
"for all to follow." That would mean, most importantly, enacting the
Employee Free Choice Act that's long been stalled in Congress. It would restructure labor-management
relations in much the same way as would the agreement between labor and the
Catholic health care system.
It would be the most important reform of labor-management
relations since President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal reforms of the 1930s.
Copyright (c) 2009 Dick Meister