Those seeking to guarantee workers the unfettered right to unionize have a compelling new example of how it can be done: An agreement reached this month [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 employer."
Also barred would be the employer tactics of threatening pro-union employees with firing or other penalties and otherwise intimidating them, and hiring "union-busting" 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 because of heavy pressures from anti-union Republicans. 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.
Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist, has covered labor and political issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. You may contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com