Catholic Hospitals Should Heed Church

Msgr. George G. Higgins, a priest based in Washington, D.C., is the former director of the Social Action Department of the U.S. Catholic Conference, the social policy arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops

Do Catholic hospitals and other Catholic institutions apply the church's core teachings when dealing with their employees and the broader community?

That question will be a major topic for discussion when thousands of Catholics from across the country meet in Los Angeles beginning Thursday at Jubilee Justice, a once-a-century Catholic gathering.

The church has long had a mission of working for justice and for strong, self-reliant families and communities. Yet, when workers choose to form a union in order to promote the good jobs our communities need and to have a voice in providing quality services, some Catholic institutions act just like other employers who interfere with their workers' choice.

At San Francisco-based Catholic Healthcare West for example, employees of the third-largest Catholic hospital system in the country say they are forming a union that would give them more of a voice in staffing levels, training and other key elements of providing quality health care at their hospitals. Workers involved include registered nurses and technicians and food service, housekeeping and support staff at 10 Los Angeles and Sacramento hospitals.

The workers say that, instead of respecting their choice, Catholic Healthcare West is using funds that could go to patient care to pay a consulting firm to train supervisors on how to pressure employees not to form a union. Assigning supervisors to intimidate workers whose work life they control is hardly consistent with the support for workers' freedom to form unions that has been expressed in countless official church documents over the years.

Employees have asked Catholic Healthcare West to agree to a prompt election without management interference so they can form a union and negotiate with the health care system over improvements in patient care and working conditions. A Catholic institution should have no trouble agreeing to such a request.

It is true that many non-Catholic employers also interfere with workers' freedom to have a voice at work, but that's no excuse. Catholic institutions ought to set an example by respecting the workers' voice as our teachings require.

To some, it is ironic that Catholic institutions are standing in the way of efforts by workers to improve their workplaces and their communities. To me, it's just plain wrong.

By bringing this issue to light and encouraging employers to apply church teachings, the Catholics who will gather for Jubilee Justice can make the event a fitting prelude to the new millennium we celebrate.

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