Despite Catholic teaching on workers’ rights to organize, U.S. Church leaders and institutions have often had a history of strained relationships with their employees, in some cases busting unions and intimidating workers into silence, say labor movement experts.
One of the most notorious cases cited by scholars occurred in 1949, when Cardinal Francis Spellman, then the archbishop of New York, used seminarians to break a strike by low-paid gravediggers at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y.
Cardinal Spellman blamed communist agitators for influencing the workers. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, which supported the gravediggers, wrote a letter to the cardinal, whom she said had been “ill-advised” and exercised “so overwhelming a show of force against a handful of poor working men.”
That episode was not an isolated incident of Church-sanctioned union busting, and marked a troubling shift in Catholic employer-worker relations, according to Joseph J. Fahey, director of labor studies at Manhattan College in New York.
Fahey told Our Sunday Visitor that a lack of knowledge about Catholic social teaching among Church leaders and the removal of religious sisters and priests from the day-to-day operations of institutions have enabled anti-union sentiments.
“In the hospitals, laypeople have been hired to run the hospitals who often come from secular business environments,” Fahey said. “And what businesses do is fight unions.”
There are several recent examples of Catholic-labor tensions. In 2008, now-retired Bishop Joseph F. Martino of Scranton, Pa., unilaterally de-certified the Scranton Diocese Association of Catholic Teachers, the union that represented diocesan educators for 30 years.
Bishop Martino replaced the union with a diocesan-managed employee relations program that the union head called a “company union.”
When the union appealed to the Vatican, it ruled that Bishop Martino did not violate civil or Church law, and that unions are not the only way to guarantee dignity and justice for employees. The diocese then issued a statement noting that the decree “refutes what some people have erroneously charged: that Bishop Martino was violating Church teaching or social doctrine regarding labor unions.”
Last year, the National Labor Relations Board called upon Borgess Medical Center, located in Kalamazoo, Mich., to appear before a hearing after the Michigan Nurses Association accused Borgess of trying to bust the union. Borgess, a member of Ascension Health Network, the largest U.S. Catholic health-care chain, reached a contract earlier this year with the nurses union, which withdrew its unfair labor practice complaint.
Health care flash point
Sister Monica McGloin, a Dominican Sister of Hope who is also a member of the Cincinnati Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, told Our Sunday Visitor that “the record was poor” for Catholic-labor relations.
“I think that, especially in Catholic health care institutions, we have seen a long-running resistance allowing staff members to vote on unions,” Sister McGloin said.
“I was involved in a project in Michigan last summer where we were hosting a faith delegation to hear from people in the Catholic health care system. It became very clear from the conversations that there were union-busting activities.”
Fahey said Catholic social teaching is unequivocal in saying that labor unions are an indispensable part of social justice in that they protect workers’ rights, guarantee their freedom to associate while fostering subsidiarity and solidarity.
Fahey argues that Catholic employers have increasingly developed an anti-union animus, in many cases even contracting “union avoidance firms” that boast of their ability to keep unions out of the workplace.
But Father Robert Sirico, president of the free-market think-tank, the Acton Institute, said there is a popular distortion about how Catholic social teaching views unions. Even in the 1949 gravedigger strike, Father Sirico said, Cardinal Spellman acted only after the union had already rejected a 3 percent raise offer. There were also 1,000 bodies waiting to be buried in the cemetery. “This should be a clear example of the legitimacy of breaking a strike,” he said.
Father Sirico said that if there is any problem in the Church institutions’ dealings with workers, it is that employees are often kept on even if their performance is deleterious to the mission. He said it is incumbent upon Church administrators to make efficient use of their money since the faithful has entrusted them with those resources.
‘Conflict and contention’
Fahey said that Church-affiliated schools, hospitals and social service institutions have increasingly cracked down on unionizing attempt since the Cardinal Spellman episode.
Years of constant hostilities surrounding workers’ attempts to unionize at Catholic hospitals led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2009 to publish a document, titled “Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Catholic Health Care and Unions,” meant to provide guidelines for fair labor negotiating processes.
The document called for Catholic hospitals to not use “traditional anti-union practices,” such as employing union-busting firms, while requesting that unions not adopt public campaigns for leverage in negotiations.
The bishops wrote: “We all know that there can be risks in dialogue. ... But some instances of conflict and controversy surrounding Catholic health care and labor have diminished Catholic values, health care ministry, the labor movement and our common commitment to a fair and just workplace.
“None of us — Catholic health care, the labor movement, or the Church — has been well served by the status-quo with all of its conflict and contention.”
Sister McGloin said the bishops’ guidelines were observed in January when 6,500 hospital workers of Ohio-based Catholic Healthcare Partners voted against unionizing.
“They had a process where neither the union or the institution interfered,” she said.
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.
Lay Workers (sidebar)
Jane Sammon, director of Mary House, which is affiliated with the Catholic Worker Movement in New York City, said she believed part of the problem was that Church-affiliated institutions such as schools and hospitals were previously run and staffed by priests and religious who worked without expectations of living wages.
“When it came time to hiring laypeople, it’s possible the Church didn’t think through these issues,” Sammon told Our Sunday Visitor.
“The Church was probably not as sensitive to the needs of laypeople, especially if they were married with children. I think the Church wanted to imbue a sense of responsibility, and a sense of, ‘This is how we work. We’re here to not to get paid, but to care for people.’”