In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange picketed with farmworkers and marched with Cesar Chavez, even serving jail time for the cause. In the 1980s, the Catholic nuns rallied behind janitors trying to unionize.
Long known as friends to labor, today the sisters are on the other side of the picket line, locked in a clash with a union that wants to organize at a chain of hospitals the nuns operate throughout California.
Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers-West is seeking to unionize more than 8,000 caregivers, including cafeteria workers and X-ray technicians, at five St. Joseph Health System hospitals -- three in Orange County and two in Northern California. The union has alleged a variety of anti-union tactics, which the nuns have denied.
The dispute has clergy and labor leaders confronting the sisters on what they say is a disconnect between the order’s legacy of worker advocacy and the way it has dealt with unions at its nonprofit hospitals. The order, after all, was named for the biblical carpenter and patron saint of workers.
“They’ve always been on the right side of social justice,” said Judith Remy Leder, a retired teacher and former sister who left the order in 1975 after 15 years. “I just see this as a blind spot.”
While other groups of workers, such as nurses, have successfully unionized at St. Joseph hospitals, service workers first began to organize at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital in 2004. The dispute has heated up at other hospitals in the last two years, with federal labor complaints and newspaper ads on both sides centered on whether the sisters have been faithful to Catholic teachings.
The union’s dispute with St. Joseph came to a head this summer at the sisters’ brick convent in Orange known as the Motherhouse. Last month during the sisters’ annual retreat there, the convent was the target of seven days of vigils and rallies by hospital workers, priests, former sisters, local politicians and labor leaders.
The union said the sisters have used union-busting tactics they once crusaded against: holding mandatory meetings advising workers against unionizing, barring union officials from distributing leaflets, intimidating labor organizers with photographers and security guards, and hiring anti-union consultants.
The union wants St. Joseph to agree on ground rules before hospital workers hold a union election. Without an agreement stressing neutrality, union officials said, hospital managers would try to delay and discourage workers from voting for the union.
St. Joseph officials denied using intimidation tactics, saying they are open to unions and would welcome an election under federal labor law, which does not require a pre-agreement. They say signing such a pact would imply an exclusive endorsement of the healthcare workers union and limit hospital workers’ choice over which union would represent them.
“Standing with people who didn’t have a voice, who didn’t have a process in the vineyards, that is thinking and reflecting our way to a position,” said Sister Katherine Gray, general superior of the sisters, who said they used the same prayer and discernment to arrive at their stance with the healthcare workers union.
Gray said the sisters were hurt by suggestions that they have strayed from their legacy of compassion for workers.
Union organizer Fred Ross said the nuns may have good intentions, but “we are asking them to live up to that proud legacy and treat their workers the same way they wanted farmworkers and immigrants treated,” he said. “Our appeal is to their best tradition.”
The Sisters of St. Joseph, which have congregations around the world, began in 17th century France, when the order was founded to cater to the needs of ordinary people, forgoing cloisters and habits.
The congregation in Orange, which has about 200 nuns, built its first hospital in 1919 in Eureka, Calif., where the order was first located, after caring for influenza patients during the 1918 epidemic. The sisters soon relocated to Southern California.
Their healthcare system now includes 14 hospitals in California, Texas and New Mexico. Last year, the healthcare system reported $3.7 billion in revenue.
Because the hospitals are run as a ministry, St. Joseph officials said, they employ a faith-based code of conduct that ensures a fair workplace. Managers are taught to treat every interaction with a worker or patient as a “sacred encounter.”
But critics say those principles, even if upheld, are no substitute for a union.
“When it comes to their own workers, they just believe they know what’s best for them,” said the Rev. Wayne “Chris” Hartmire, a retired Presbyterian minister and former director of the interfaith National Farm Worker Ministry. “It’s classic paternalism. They think of themselves as good people, on the side of righteousness, and for their workers to question that is hard.”
Joseph Fahey, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York who has backed the workers, said “we have seen a real misreading of tradition” at three major Catholic healthcare groups in recent years, including St. Joseph. “We find that there’s really either open hostility or passive resistance to unions.”
The Catholic Church, he said, has a tradition of supporting unions going back to medieval guilds. An 1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII gave early support to the rise of labor unions. And more recently, a 1999 paper by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops tried to reconcile problems between labor and Catholic healthcare providers, pointing to “the gap between general principles and practices at the local level.”
Msgr. John Brenkle of St. Helena Catholic Church in Northern California, a friend of Sister Gray who has offered to act as a mediator, said the sisters may have been overly influenced by their lay advisors and perhaps unwittingly developed an anti-union bent.
Members of other labor groups who have organized at St. Joseph hospitals say they, too, endured negative campaigning and retaliation against workers.
“They don’t keep a neutral attitude,” said Jill Furillo, Southern California director for the California Nurses Assn., which represents 1,000 nurses at three St. Joseph’s hospitals.
The healthcare workers union is not universally embraced by workers at St. Joseph hospitals. Matt Larson, an X-ray technician at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, said the union was trying to “embarrass and harass the sisters to knuckle down into an agreement.”
Mary Grijalva, a receptionist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, disagreed, saying the sisters have misbehaved.
“I strongly believe in the sisters’ values and code of conduct,” she said, “but I don’t think they’re passing that on to their workers.”
Places of interest
Hospitals where officials with the healthcare workers union want elections for service workers:
St. Joseph Hospital, Orange
St. Jude Medical Center, Fullerton
Mission Hospital, Mission Viejo
Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, Santa Rosa
Petaluma Valley Hospital, Petaluma
Source: Reporting by Tony Barboza