IRI Intelligence Briefing

News and Developments Affecting the Workplace

Volume Number & Date: 
Vol. 1 No. 10 - July 2009

Papal Encyclical & Bishops’ Paper Boost Union Power

Labor unions have made significant inroads in organizing recently with the issuance of two documents by the Catholic Church: a papal encyclical reiterating strong support for unions, and a Bishops’ report supporting fair election agreements between labor and management.

Pope on Social and Economic Justice

The Vatican June 29 issued Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth)1, by Pope Benedict XVI. The Pope writes that businesses have a moral obligation to operate not simply by profits, but by “an ethics which is people-oriented. Profit is useful if it serves as a means toward an end, but once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty. Every economic decision has a moral consequence.”

In a section on the right of people everywhere to enjoy a decent standard of living, the encyclical says, “Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution in order to increase the country’s international competitiveness, hinder the achievement of lasting development.”

“The goal should be decent employment for everyone, which means work that ... permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard.

“Here budgetary policies, with cuts in social spending often made under pressure from international financial institutions, can leave citizens powerless in the face of old and new risks; such powerlessness is increased by the lack of effective protection on the part of workers’ associations. Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome.

“The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum [Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor, issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891]2, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.”

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Fair Election Agreements

A week before the encyclical was released, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued Respecting the Just Rights of Workers3, which codifies “fair election agreements,” a powerful organizing tool unions have sought – and waged bitter corporate campaigns over – since the 1970s. At its core, it strongly urges Catholic hospitals to relinquish much of their legal rights to communicate with employees about unions. The agreement covers more than 600,000 employees at nearly 600 Catholic hospitals nationwide.

The document contains “guidance and options” for union organizing in Catholic hospitals. It is the product of a decadelong dialog among the USCCB, Catholic hospital management, and labor unions representing healthcare workers. Its architects include a retired cardinal, two bishops, the CEO of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, SEIU, AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and the American Federation of Teachers.

Respecting the Just Rights of Workers is the direct descendent of “Principles and Practices for a Fair and Just Workplace in Catholic Health Care,”4 a draft document USCCB released in 1999 that unions have used ever since to press for “fair election agreements.” Although the new document and its accompanying background materials don’t mention the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), its timing and content clearly will help the effort.

Seven Principles for Labor and Management

The “guidance and options” spell out seven principles of “civil dialog between unions and employers focusing on how the workers’ right to decide will be respected.”

They strongly recommend "unions and employers enter into a Local Agreement that, at a minimum, addresses [the seven principles]."

The Seven Principals of Respecting the Just Rights of Workers:

  • Respect: All parties are committed to demonstrate respect for each other's organization and mission.
  • Equal access to information: "The union and employer should agree in advance on an equal number of written, verbal, or other communications for employees," and the employer should not conduct mandatory meetings about unionization.
  • Truthful and balanced communications: All written communications should be "reviewed and jointly approved by the employer and union." Communications should be "factual, accurate, and holistically truthful."
  • Pressure-free environment: Neither side will "make comments or engage in activities" that could be considered harassment, threats, intimidation, or coercion.
  • Fair and expeditious process: Employees will be allowed to vote through a secret ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board "or another mutually agreed upon process," without lengthy hearings and delays.
  • Meaningful enforcement: A "neutral authority will be designated to ensure the principles are followed and resolve issues that arise."
  • Honoring employee decisions: All sides will honor the results of the election or other mutually agreed upon process, and will not engage in negative or disparaging conduct regardless of the outcome.

Not Carved in Stone

The new accord leaves lots of room for interpretation. For example, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington, D.C. who chaired the process, emphasized that the guidelines are suggestions and are not binding on any Catholic healthcare institution. "It offers options and alternatives rather than commandments and mandates."

On the other hand, Dennis Rivera, chair of SEIU Healthcare, said he "has nothing but the highest expectations that the guidelines will be adhered to by a majority of Catholic health care institutions." Rivera was one of the union representatives who worked on Respecting the Just Rights of Workers.

Impact of the Documents

Although both the Pope's encyclical and the Bishop's guidelines are sure to have a major impact on union organizing, it's difficult to gauge the full extent of their reach.

Respecting the Just Rights of Workers directly applies only to the country's 600 Catholic hospitals. With the imprimatur of the Church in hand, unions will embark on a major effort to organize the country's 600,000 employees of Catholic hospitals and health systems.

The document also will be used by unions and union-friendly organizations as part of their push for EFCA. Having respected organizations like the USCCB and Catholic Health Association as authors of the document is sure to grab the attention of federal lawmakers.

Longer term, Respecting the Just Rights of Workers could be used by unions as a new paradigm to organize other non-Catholic, faith-based healthcare organizations, and, perhaps, non-faith-based. By winning at several high-profile Catholic facilities, unions could leverage the document nationwide. Used in conjunction with EFCA, the impact could be immense.

The encyclical, on the other hand, is less targeted. It can be expected to play a significant role in the EFCA debate but, because it is not a how-to manual like the Bishops’ paper, it isn’t as useful as an organizing tool. Most likely, its greatest impact will be in Catholic organizations, most prominently healthcare. In general, encyclicals tend to have more influence than actual power outside of Catholicism.

Following are steps IRI recommends taking to deal with Respecting the Just Rights of Workers and, should its influence spread or become more focused, Caritas in Veritate as well.

Partnering with Experts Essential

Unions didn’t spend 10 years crafting Respecting the Just Rights of Workers only to have it sit on a shelf. Clearly, Catholic healthcare management is in labor’s cross hairs more than ever before. Unions have spent decades attempting to force hospitals and hospital systems across the country to accept “fair election agreements” much like Respecting the Just Rights of Workers. When hospitals refused, unions launched corporate campaigns that caused economic harm to the hospitals, damaged their reputations and hurt relationships with their stakeholders.

Unions knew exactly what they wanted in the 1970s when they began agitating for “fair election agreements,” and they know now as well. SEIU, the largest healthcare union, is also the fastest growing. It is as sophisticated as any business, has far more political clout and knows how to get what it wants. Expecting the SEIU to turn up on your doorstep with a blank sheet of paper saying, “Let’s talk” is a mistake. When SEIU targets a hospital or system, they’ll come fully prepared with their demands. Given labor’s pressing need for revenue, SEIU, its new strategic partner the California Nurses Association
(CNA), as well as other healthcare-focused unions will go into action soon.

Catholic hospitals will need help to keep from giving a union everything it wants in a Local Agreement. While Respecting the Just Rights of Workers is new, the mechanisms it contains are decades old. To succeed, hospitals should seek the most competent legal and labor relations counsel possible.

Essential Questions about the Principles

Catholic healthcare leaders should immediately engage their board of directors, religious sponsors and other key internal stakeholders to determine where everyone stands on Respecting the Just Rights of Workers as a whole, on each of its seven principles and its “New Paradigm.” Catholic organizations will need to ask themselves some tough questions, including:

Is it in our organization's best interest to adopt or reject the document in its entirety?

  • What are the comparative costs . financial, service, quality, productivity, flexibility, and image . of rejecting versus accepting the Seven Principles?
  • What do we gain in exchange for forfeiting much of our legal right to communicate our views on unions directly to our employees?
  • What is our limit on each of the principles . how far are we willing to go to satisfy the union?
  • The principles allow non-election decision making for employees. Would we agree to card check instead of a secret ballot election?
  • How will accepting or rejecting some or all of the principles affect our relationship with our sponsors, local Catholic leaders, and external stakeholders?
  • The principles specify that the employer and union "designate a neutral authority who shall have binding authority to enforce the local agreement and resolve issues that arise during the courseh of the organizing campaign. The union will have its favorite candidates. How far are you willing to go to reject their candidate or insist on your own?
  • Will we accept the principles in general, but refuse to accept one or more of them?

Cardinal McCarrick himself acknowledged that the process of union and Catholic healthcare management developing a Local Agreement based on the Seven Principles will be rigorous: ""Principles are often more clear in high-level discussions than in the midst of local realities and personalities, especially when there is real pain and anger resulting from previous or ongoing disputes and tactics."

Preparing for the Seven Principles

At the same time leadership is considering these issues, Catholic healthcare needs to prepare for the possibility that a union - SEIU, CNA or another - will call soon and have a draft document that it would "like to discuss."

For Catholic hospitals and health systems that believe that maintaining a direct working relationship with employees is in their organization's best interest, five steps should be taken as soon as possible:

  • Education
  • Employee engagement
  • Leadership training & development
  • Organizational risk assessment
  • Communications


Respecting the Just Rights of Workers is only a guide, an outline of how Catholic hospitals and unions should interact before and during an organizing campaign. Making that outline operable could fill volumes . volumes that unions already have developed and will bring with them to Catholic hospitals.

Catholic healthcare leaders need to understand the implications of what Respecting the Just Rights of Workers would mean to the organization, how it will change their entire approach to union readiness, and its potential impact on operations and profitability.

IRI has years of experience helping Catholic healthcare leaders to understand:

  • The differences between traditional union organizing and "fair election agreements"
  • Current union practices & win rates
  • Labor laws and the constraints on employers, plus the constraints of the "guidance and options"
  • What "fair election agreements" say on paper, and how they actually work
  • ""Fair election agreements" tactics
  • Impact on employee relations
  • Impact on flexibility and overhead

Once the board of directors and senior leaders understand these factors, IRI Consultants helps them develop their organization's position on unionization and communicate it to all employees.

With these and related decisions in place, IRI will develop customized education tools for the entire workplace, using leading-edge video-based and online tools, including "train-the-trainer" modules, that enable you to reduce expenses by conducting some of the training with your own personnel.

This education is designed specifically for each client's midmanagement, first-line supervisors, and all employees. Of critical importance for managers and supervisors is learning how to spot the early warning signs of union organizing, understanding labor laws and fines for violations, as well as the mechanics of supervising under a "fair election agreement" and EFCA.


Generally, employees who are fully engaged with their employers don't want unions because there's no us/them mindset in the workplace.

For most employees, "engagement" means believing that they're an essential part of an organization and feeling valued and respected. They know that when there's an important issue that affects them, their input will be sought. When something critical happens, they'll hear it first from their immediate supervisor, not the rumor mill. Day in and day out, their boss communicates with them often and well.

Nothing forms a stronger barrier to unions than employees who believe that their employer's success is their success. The goal of employee engagement is to have employees say "no thanks" when a union organizer approaches them.

It's foolhardy to wait for union organizers to appear in the workplace before trying to increase employee engagement. Engagement is a lengthy process, and it has to start long before an organization is targeted.

IRI offers powerful tools to examine and maximize employee engagement in Catholic healthcare workplaces:

  • Fastrack Teamssm. Making cross-functional change using traditional methods can be a long, frustrating exercise. Our Fastracksm system, on the other hand, produces lasting results faster while giving employees the satisfaction of changing - in one or two days - processes that affect their work.
  • Employee Advisory Groups. One of the most effective tools to promote engagement and manage difficult issues, Employee Advisory Groups are used to provide focused, non-binding employee input. Proven "safety valves," their uses range from helping to guide organizational decision making, improve problem solving and understand employee concerns, soliciting ideas and anticipating and understanding the effect of management's decisions on employees.
  • Peer Review. Conflict exists in every professional and personal relationship. It's inescapable. IRI's Peer Review process, designed as an in-house grievance procedure, gives employees a participatory process for resolving problems fairly and impartially. Organizations that deal with employee conflicts this way benefit from reduced exposure to litigation, higher morale, better productivity and a reduced likelihood of unionization.


Old behaviors die hard. It takes a concerted effort to change an organization's culture. Executives, senior managers - the entire management team - may at first be leery of sharing power with employees. However, if maintaining a direct working relationship with employees is a hospital's goal, learning new, more collaborative ways of leading is essential.

Managers and supervisors may need training in communications, morale building, listening and responding to employee suggestions, coaching and mentoring, and making change happen. IRI recommends starting with executives and senior leaders. Many of them may need the same kind of support that lower-level management does. Every senior leader may not be on board for changing an organization's culture, or be willing to engage employees by empowering them.

IRI provides proven tools that equip management teams to lead and engage employees. These include:

  • Leadership Development & Coaching. Results, relationships and readiness are three qualities found in every successful leader. But what if a high-potential individual in your organization needs improvement in one of these areas?

    IRI helps clients develop trusted and credible leadership behaviors. We help leaders motivate employees through programs that leverage effective dialogue and communication, as well as remove barriers and resistance to change. The result is a culture that empowers employees to take ownership of their performance, make good decisions, and not feel the need to join a union.

  • Change Management. Leaders must appreciate the importance of organizational change. They must know when revolutionary, not incremental, change is essential. Being able to adapt to change, whether driven by internal or external forces, allows organizations to survive such changes as Respecting the Just Rights of Workers and EFCA.

    IRI helps management integrate employees in an organization's success, and allow them to recognize change as an opportunity rather than a threat. We help empower leaders to inspire a sense of ownership and urgency needed to reject unionization.

  • Organizational Communications Training. The most preferred, most-respected source of information in a workplace typically is the employee's direct supervisor.
    This preference starts at the very top of the business.

On delicate subjects like unionization, it's essential that managers and supervisors:

  • Initiate dialogue
  • Guide it
  • Respond to it
  • Comply with the National Labor Relations Act

IRI's communications coaching and training teach skills needed to:

  • Be more effective when communicating with employees
  • Inspire employees and improve morale
  • Deliver difficult news
  • Manage difficult personalities
  • Be more effective in managing work


Ask some executives how vulnerable they are to unionization and they'll point to their employee satisfaction survey results and reply, "It won't happen here."

Here's the problem with that philosophy: Satisfied employees are not particularly loyal; only extremely satisfied employees are. Employees who say they are merely satisfied with an organization's dignity and respect, involvement in decision making and how their managers communicate with them can be easy targets for unionization.

To help organizations begin to understand what's really broken and what isn't, IRI uses sophisticated diagnostic tools to determine the true level of employee engagement and the potential issues that can trigger a union attempt in an organization:

Organizational Risk Assessment (ORA). Unions typically target the organizations that are most vulnerable and unprepared. As its name implies, our ORA identifies where an organization stands in the vulnerability spectrum. It explores the 12 key areas most often targeted by unions:

  • Pay
  • Benefit programs
  • Employee voice
  • Communication
  • Working conditions
  • Staffing
  • Scheduling
  • Promotional opportunities
  • Management
  • Co-worker relations
  • Job Security
  • HR policies & procedures

Positive Employee Relations Audit (PERA). PERA provides an efficient and dynamic "gap analysis" to evaluate and diagnose the strengths and liabilities of employee relations cultures and systems. IRI's PERA considers such IRI Intelligence Briefing News and Developments Affecting the Workplace critical measures as employee turnover, performance, work attitudes, absenteeism and predisposition to union organizing.

Issue Identification and Improvement (I). This proprietary diagnostic and organizational improvement system identifies and addresses workplace issues through employee focus groups. The tool measures issues as diverse as human resources, operations, staffing, workplace communications, work environment, equipment, compensation and benefits, and teamwork.

Corporate Campaign Vulnerability Assessment. When unions can't get what they want, they'll up the ante. Dating back to the 1970s, unions have used "corporate campaigns" to wage long-term economic, political and psychological warfare against target organizations.

Whether it's to organize workers or force concessions in bargaining, the objective of corporate campaigns is to cause more pain to the target organization than it can stand.

Catholic hospitals that choose not to abide by Respecting the Just Rights of Workers risk becoming targets of corporate campaigns. IRI thoroughly evaluates organizations' vulnerability to that powerful tool. Our communications and labor relations professionals then help clients fix the weaknesses we uncover.

Human Resource Alignment Audit. This diagnostic tool determines the degree to which internal policies and procedures are being adhered to, and identifies the barriers impeding adherence. Not simply a "compliance audit," IRI's HR Alignment Audit combines a carefully designed mix of structured interviews with employees and managers, focus groups and surveys. IRI's auditors are experienced professionals who have lived with compliance issues, and understand the associated implications.


Newsletters, emails, posters, flyers, videos and other tangible communication tools tend to give employers a false sense of security. "We told employees that last quarter in the newsletter" doesn't mean that employees read it, believe it or understand it.

With Respecting the Just Rights of Workers - with or without EFCA - communicating the issue of unionization needs to be done regularly, credibly and persuasively.

Research for decades has shown that employees' preferred source of information is face-to-face and from their immediate supervisor/manager. Unfortunately, the most-used source in most organizations is the rumor mill.

The problem is that many line managers don't:

  • Have the skills to communicate effectively
  • Feel comfortable answering difficult employee questions
  • Fully understand or support what they're saying
  • Have the tools they need to persuade their employees

Add to these issues ineffective messaging and slow-moving communication processes, and the chances of rapidly and effectively rebutting union claims are slim.

By stripping employers of much of their legal rights to communicate with employees, Respecting the Just Rights of Workers will make such organizational communications challenges infinitely more difficult. Its "guidance and options" for "Truthful and Balanced Communications" specifies:

  • The union and employer will jointly review and approve all written communications to all employees.
  • All communications must be "proportionate, mutually agreed upon, and conform to the 'truthful and balanced' principles" of the accord.
  • The union and employer will have access to the same means of disseminating information and will agree in advance on an equal number of written, verbal or other communications to be made available to employees.
  • The employer will not conduct mandatory or one-on-one meetings about unionization with employees.
  • Employers must not use information from union constitutions and by-laws to create fears about fines or expulsion.

IRI thoroughly assesses employee communications processes and messages, then helps to maximize their effectiveness. Our Organizational Communications Audit is a thorough assessment of an organization's ability to effectively communicate critical messages. IRI's communications audits pinpoint current practices that work well, and identify opportunities for more robust, results-oriented communications.

Our communications audits give employers clear insight into critical issues that might enhance or impede their ability to maintain a direct working relationship with employees. IRI's communication consultants then help leadership teams to eliminate communication weaknesses and enhance strengths.


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