IRI Intelligence Briefing

News and Developments Affecting the Workplace

Volume Number & Date: 
Vol. 1 No. 6 - December 2008

Playing the "Religion Card"

How Unions Leverage Religion to Organize Workers

Over the past several years, an increasing number of hospitals and healthcare systems have experienced criticism from an unexpected source: the Church.

In each case, a labor union was the instigator. The union relies on principles from the hospital’s own affiliated religious community as a basis for organizing employees and, in some cases, recruits local clergy, board members and other community stakeholders in its efforts to organize at the hospital.

The union questions whether the hospital or healthcare system is supporting or “living” the religious social teachings of the church, particularly when the administration has taken a stand against unionization. But the underlying issue is how the union can be more effective in its organizing efforts.

For example, in the ongoing corporate campaign against St. Joseph Health System in California, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has made an issue of whether St. Joseph’s is following the Catholic faith’s social teachings found in papal encyclicals that support the “natural right” of employees to voluntarily associate. The union recruited local and national clergy and religious groups to join in the campaign against the ministry to get the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, the system’s sponsor, to enter into a system-wide organizing agreement with SEIU that includes a neutrality agreement and would bypass the NLRB-supervised election process.

Consequently, headlines like "Union-Busting Nuns" and "Labor Organizing a Bad Habit" have been used in stories about the organizing efforts at the healthcare system. Rallies and vigils attended by workers, priests, former nuns, local politicians and labor leaders have been held at the Sisters' convent. White papers were written. A critical Web site was created featuring negative media coverage, accusations of corporate greed and misbehavior and employee and patient "horror stories." And charges were filed with the NLRB.

While labor organizers may draw heavily from Catholicism, the themes, unions use in corporate campaigns are consistent across all faiths:

  • Worker dignity
  • Social justice
  • Fair wages and benefits
  • Freedom to associate
  • Respect for human life

Coalition Building

When engaged in a corporate campaign, unions often build coalitions with organizations outside the labor movement, in part to leverage the credibility of other community organizations and take the focus off the union. When a union focuses on religious issues during a campaign at a hospital, it puts management in the difficult position of opposing respected religious leaders in their communities.

A growing number of national organizations have become secondary participants in union corporate campaigns, including Jobs with Justice (JwJ). The group developed a “Religious Action Kit” that provides study materials and advocacy tools for clerical advocates. Founded in 1987 by Larry Cohen – now president of the AFL-CIO’s Communications Workers of America – JwJ actively supports union organizing campaigns across the country through a network of grassroots coalitions, which include religious, community, student and civil rights groups.

The AFL-CIO also coaches community activists and union supporters to build these outside relationships on its Web site that includes the report, “Ten Things You Can Do to Build Religion-Labor Partnerships.” Meanwhile, the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (IWJ) has joined the AFL-CIO as sponsor of “Labor in the Pulpit” to educate employees about the relationship between faith and work. IWJ also offers a resource guide that features suggestions for integrating pro-labor concepts in sermons.

The “living wage” movement is another area where unions, religious leaders and community activists – like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) – have aligned in organizing campaigns at health systems. Issues relating to social justice have surfaced in corporate campaigns supported by the United Methodist Church and numerous Catholic ministerial and lay groups. The National Baptist Convention, the organization representing African-American Baptist Churches, also has become increasingly active in corporate campaigns.

According to Catholic doctrine, the living wage issue encompasses the fair treatment of employees, including a wage that enables them to afford the basic necessities. An employer may be in compliance with state and federal minimum wage laws but, according to union organizers, executives still are guilty of earning overly generous compensation packages by adopting unsafe worker productivity objectives and paying wages that push employees below federal poverty lines.

In Good Faith

Beginning with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891, the Catholic Church has been clear about supporting employees’ “natural right” to voluntarily associate. But unions and other groups rely on ambiguities in official religious proclamations to convince employees that the church endorses unionization. They’ll use language, like the “right to decide through a free and fair process” to pressure hospitals into neutrality agreements or publicly shame them if managers attempt to educate employees about the organization’s interest in maintaining a direct working relationship.

“American unions universally encourage workers to adopt an us-versusthem attitude toward employers, which is contrary to Leo’s vision,” writes Charles W. Baird in Liberating Labor. “Leo XIII would not endorse modern unionism in America.”

Indeed. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The core of Catholic teachings…is that it is up to workers – not bishops, managers, union business agents, or management consultants – to exercise the right to decide through a fair and free process how they wish to be represented in the workplace.”

Employers and employees should be careful about sources cited by unions to support their claims of church support. In July 2008, the Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice published “Catholic Social Doctrine and Worker Justice: A Call to the Common Good.” In the small print, the authors admit that the “views expressed in this document represent the professional judgment of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice. CSWJ is an independent organization and does not speak in an official capacity for the Roman Catholic Church.” In fact, the Labor Guild, a decades-old group founded by unionists who enlisted Jesuit priests to lecture members about labor matters, coordinated the publication.

Most major religions have made statements about their positions on unionization. The philosophies are similar in that they call on management and employees to act morally and in good faith to reach equitable solutions regarding wages and working conditions. They endorse the need for employees to have an active voice in decision-making that affects them as well as rights to choose whether they want third-party representation.

The Presbyterian Church, for instance, supports the rights of all workers to choose to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining. The United Methodist Church states its support for the "right of public and private employees and employers to organize for collective bargaining into unions and other groups of their own choosing." And the Central Conference of American Rabbis promotes its longterm advocacy of the labor movement and "the rights of employees to form unions for the purpose of engaging in collective bargaining and attaining fairness in the workplace."

How Should Organizations Respond?

  • Educate senior leadership about church positions regarding unions and workplace issues;
  • Adopt a simple, straight-forward position about unionization and communicate it to employees and new hires;
  • Incorporate faith-based messaging in internal and external communications;
  • Establish and maintain strong relationships with local church and community leaders;
  • Conduct a corporate campaign vulnerability assessment to determine where your organization is vulnerable to attack and what opportunities exist to mitigate those vulnerabilities.
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