U.S. bishops issue guidelines for Catholic health care-labor disputes

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick


The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), with leaders from Catholic health care providers and the labor movement, has released guidelines for creating a “fair process” for health care workers to decide whether or not to form a new union.

The new document outlining the guidelines is titled “Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Catholic Health Care and Unions,” and took more than 10 years to come to a consensus about.

Parties to the agreement include the USCCB, the Catholic Health Association of the United States, the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union, the Associated Press reports.

According to the USCCB, the effort to produce the document intended to find “common ground” on “alternative approaches” for applying Catholic social teachings on the rights of workers to choose whether or not to be represented by unions.

“Though they had different perspectives and points of view in many areas, the participants shared the conviction that it is up to workers—not bishops, hospital managers, or union leaders—to decide how they will be represented in the workplace,” said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who chaired the dialogue.

“This remarkable dialogue produced an unprecedented agreement because of the principles of Catholic social teaching and the quality of the leaders involved,” the cardinal said.

The new document lists seven key principles for appropriate conduct by employer and union representatives intended to help ensure employees are allowed to make informed decisions without undue pressure.

It suggests that unions and employers agree on specific ways they will “demonstrate respect” for each other’s organization and mission; provide workers with “equal access”  to information; adhere to standards for truthfulness and balance in communications; create a “pressure-free” environment; allow workers to vote through a fair and expeditious process and honor employees’ decisions regardless of the outcome.

The document also advises that unions and employers create a system to enforce these principles during organizing drives.

The Associated Press reports that under the agreement hospital managers agree not to use “traditional anti-union tactics” such as hiring union-busting firms to defeat organizing drives. For their part, unions agreed not to publicly attack Catholic health care organizations during labor campaigns.

Bishop William Murphy, Chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and a participant in the dialogue, said the approach depends on “civil dialogue” between unions and employers who are focusing on how workers’ “right to decide” will be respected.

“By placing workers at the center of the process, the group affirmed the core of Catholic Social Doctrine,” he said.

The “Guidance and Options” document is not binding on individual bishops, hospitals and unions but is intended to provide guidance for their conduct during organizing efforts.

The USCCB describes the document as offering “principles and practical alternatives” for leaders of Catholic health care and unions who want to avoid the “tension and conflict” that can accompany organizing drives.

Speaking to the Associated Press, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said the dialogue has emphasized “workers' rights to organize as part of Church teachings.”

Reportedly more than 600,000 employees work in nearly 600 Catholic hospitals nationwide.

“Because Catholic Health Care is a ministry not an industry, how it treats its workers and how organized labor treats Catholic Health Care are not simply internal matters, but should reflect Catholic teaching on work and workers, heath care and the common good,” Cardinal McCarrick said.