Church now has too few powerful defenders of workers' rights - Catholic Courier

Church now has too few powerful defenders of workers’ rights

My annual Labor Day column on justice in the church prompted a reader to call my attention to a serious labor dispute currently under way between the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, Calif., and a number of their employees in the St. Joseph Health System, and specifically at the sisters’s Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

The dispute has attracted the attention of the national media, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. There also is a lengthy article in Catholic San Francisco, the weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Without being on the scene and having direct access to the interested parties and relevant documents, this column is not in a position to pass judgment in favor of one side or the other. But if there are initial impressions — and there are — that are more favorable to those supporting the cause of unionization than to the sponsoring religious community, it means that those representing the St. Joseph Health System have a higher bar of public opinion to traverse.

My own initial reaction to the case was to assume that theologically and politically conservative bishops were probably at fault in standing with management over labor.

Indeed, the episcopal leadership of the Catholic Church in America has had too few powerful defenders of the rights of workers since Cardinal John J. O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, died more than eight years ago.

And another strong defender of the right to unionize, Msgr. George Higgins, died almost exactly two years later, fittingly on the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, May 1, 2002.

One of Msgr. Higgins’s most searing criticisms in his 1993 memoir, Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a “Labor Priest” (Paulist Press) was directed against violations of workers’ basic rights to unionize within church institutions, and particularly Catholic hospitals run by nuns.

His observations in that book seem, at least on the surface, sadly relevant to the case in California. Msgr. Higgins noted that too often nuns interpreted the desire of their employees to unionize as a negative reflection on themselves, as if they had not been kind and generous enough to those who worked in their medical facilities.

Again, this column cannot pass judgment one way or the other in this current labor dispute, nor is there any wish to do so. But, as noted above, negative impressions are important and they need to be addressed and corrected.

The point is that there is something about this case that fails, at first whiff, to pass the smell test. Priests with a commitment to the rights of workers, like the late Msgr. Higgins, have in the past expressed serious concern about the behavior of some sisters who own and operate medical facilities like the St. Joseph Health System.

According to Catholic San Francisco (8/22/08), Msgr. John Brenkle, once a personal friend of the order’s general superior who is also chair of the hospital system’s board, was taken aback by what appeared to him to be an anti-union stance by the sisters — and this in spite of the community’s extraordinary record of support for the farmworkers in the 1960s and for “the tremendous amount of good work they do for the poor.”

Msgr. Brenkle decided to refer the matter to the Santa Rosa diocesan Council of Priests, which met with representatives of both sides. As a guide to sorting out the various claims, the council used a working paper done under the auspices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops entitled, “A Fair and Just Workplace: Principles and Practices for Catholic Healthcare.”

The priests’ council recommended the paper to Santa Rosa’s bishop, Daniel Walsh, who adopted it as diocesan policy. That policy met its first test within months when a union approached the diocese about organizing cemetery workers.

Catholic San Francisco reported that, rather than oppose the initiative, the diocese did all that it could to be cooperative with the organizing effort, leaving it up to the workers to decide whether to affiliate with the union or not, without any pressure from the diocese.

“To Monsignor Brenkle’s dismay,” the article continued, “the conflict at Santa Rosa Memorial did not go as well.”

“Unfortunately,” he said, “the St. Joseph Health System has not adopted (a) stance of neutrality. They have been aggressively anti-union.”

A former director of the interfaith National Farm Worker Ministry was quoted in The New York Times (8/9/08) as saying, “They (the nuns) think of themselves as good people, on the side of righteousness, and for their workers to question that is hard.”

Sounds a lot like Msgr. Higgins.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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