The Common Good
September-October 1998

Captive to Capital

by Jane Samuels | September-October 1998

Even church institutions can lose sight of human needs.

The American church and organized labor appear to have core values in commonùa call to justice, equity, dignity for individuals. So why is it that church-owned or connected institutions are arguably among the most difficult to organize?

Institutions connected to churches in name or by financial ties are usually in a class of "human services" that include schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and child care centers. These institutions emerged from the Puritan belief that when one was in need, Christian men and women would, as God would have it, respond. Indeed, the earliest colonial social policy, that of "kith and kin," meant that if one of your own was in need, it was your job, as a Christian, to respond with aid. This view informed the development of social services for the next three centuries.

Schools, likewise, came out of the early Puritan community's desire to train children in the ways of God. American colonial schools met in the church or in a common building also used by the church, and the early textbook was often the King James Version of the Holy Bible.

So the connectorsùphysical, financial, psychologicalùbetween the church and social services are long and deep, with the work of the early church becoming the work of social services, the human-care arm of the state. It follows, then, that institutions which emerged from church systems would continue to carry the names of the churchùSt. Mark's School, Methodist Hospital, Baptist Retirement Centerùeven once significant relationships with the church faded, further implying an environment of caring.

But if these are places of caring, why then are they so darned hard to organize? Better yet, why is organizing even necessary in such a caring place?

It's About Money

Richard Schwarz, executive director of the 7,000-member American Federation of Teachers-Oregon, explains it as a phenomenon of socioeconomic change. Many church-based institutions have "had to re-evaluate their business practices if they were to remain competitive," he says. "Many were an outgrowth of religious missions, but to survive day-to-day they had to become more businesslike. The priority shifted to cash flow, income, and the long-range financial picture."

This shift in business priorities was accompanied by the expansion of labor unions, especially during the last 50 years, into the public sector and white-collar professions. Health- care-workers unions, in particular, are growing rapidly.

How Unions Form

When a union attempts to organize a workplace, whether the employer is public (tax-based), private non-profit (without owners/stockholders), or for profit, the steps are formulaic. Authorization cards are signed by employees calling for union representation and an election. (The employer may willingly recognize the union, but rarely does.)

These cards are then submitted to the appropriate governmental agency (either the National Labor Relations Board, created in 1935 specifically for such matters, or a similar state board that handles public sector elections), which reviews the cards and sets an election date. Along the way, employers have access to seemingly inexhaustible delays, usually in the form of formal objections or informal disruptions. These objections can be frivolous, expensive, time-consuming, and chilling to the organizing effort.

Schwarz remembers an election early in his organizing career when nurses organized a health care unit at St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee. The campaign began with the filing of authorization cards in 1979. An election followed, and the union lost by the margin of five votes out of the hundreds cast. During the course of the campaign, the employer engaged in behavior that the union considered illegal, so Unfair Labor Practices complaints with the NLRB were filed.

Schwarz notes that when the organizing process began there were "sisters in position of high authority in administration." But they were soon replaced by employees from an outside firm, retained to take over the day-to-day management of the hospital, but whose "real job was to break the organizing effort." Angry nurses paid a visit to the Milwaukee-area bishop to complain about the hospital's tactics. "We thought the bishop should know," Schwarz said, "since a church institution should be charitable, and particularly given the Catholic Church's history of supporting employees' right to organize."

The visit was to no avail.

Years of delays and procedures threatened to cut the heart out of the organizing drive, but after seven years of elections, appeals, and hearings the hospital was found guilty of numerous illegal disruptive acts and the union was granted bargaining status.

While Schwarz maintains that "organizing is organizing," he agrees that a church-affiliated organization may have a unique weapon in the employer's anti-union arsenal. In non-religious worksites, "teachers can be dissuaded because organizing might æhurt the kids,' and nurses can be dissuaded because organizing might æhurt the patients,'" he says. "But employees in an institution with a religious mission may even be interfering with æGod's charitable work.' And who wants spots on their record when it comes to Judgment Day?"

Who Is the Union?

Jim Farmer, special projects coordinator for Service Employees International Union Local 113 in Minneapolis, agrees that organizing in any non-profit is difficult, church-connected or not. Local 113 has been successful in recent years in nursing home organizing and now represents employees at 20 nursing homes in the Twin Cities area. Farmer scoffs somewhat at the notion that church connections make organizing more difficult, at least in Minnesota, where most health care employers are "in the same boat," regulated through legislative reimbursement programs, resulting in a lower profit potential and a "lower hostility" factor.

However, Farmer recounts details of two particularly ugly campaigns in two separate area hospitals, both of which were managed by church personnel and both of which quickly hired "union busting" firms or attorneys once the union effort was under way. In one, SEIU was successful and now represents employees. In the other, SEIU's bid for representation failed. To what does he attribute the difference?

"The strength of the organizing committee," he says. In the hospital where employees were successful in organizing, "the union was not outsiders. Those employees believed, æWe are the union.' That was the difference."

Farmer acknowledges that church-related institutions pull every manipulative string possible to destroy organizing efforts, creating "climates of fear" and seeking to divide the workforce along fragile economic, gender, age, and even racial lines. He also notes the power that non-profits bring to the table. "Non-profit certainly doesn't mean æno profits' or æno influence,'" he notes. "A high-ranking church official and former mayor sat on the board of one of the non-profit hospitals we organized." Still, Farmer is not convinced that a church-connected employer creates a particularly hazardous organizing climate. "Employers are employers," he says.

At What Price?

Others disagree. Sara Gjerdrum, now assistant to the president for field services, Minnesota Federation of Teachers (AFT, AFL-CIO), was a teacher in the Hill Murray School, a Catholic school supported by several Minneapolis-St. Paul area parishes, when organizing began in the late 1980s. Ten years later, teachers have a contract, but at a monumental price.

Says Gjerdrum, "The administration of Hill Murray believed that they did not need to share power. Period. They didn't have to, so they didn't." The organizing effort has left a divided and tired faculty and some, like Gjerdrum, have left Hill Murray.

The Hill Murray administration maintained that union organizing at their school was a breach of separation of church and state law, a position that was eventually overturned by the Minnesota Supreme Court. To rectify the church and state snag, the union agreed to remove religion teachers from the bargaining unit, along with the customarily excluded supervisors.

Although a contract was eventually bargained into place, the long years of employer anti-union behavior has split the unit in half; 12 teachers support the union and pay dues while eight do not, although the non-payers have full rights of representation. New hires are subtly "questioned" to "see how they react to unions," Gjerdrum says, and decertifications to dismantle the union have been filed by the employer. Apart from the human price, the union spent close to $100,000 in legal fees to organize this tiny unit. Why?

"Because, says Gjerdrum, "we had no voice. How could the church support organized labor in Poland but not in St. Paul? We were tired of not being heard."

Does Gjerdrum think the religious base of the institution has contributed to the problem? "Absolutely," she says. "The board's attitude is that there is a mission, a special mission, and if the mission is driving you, then money isn't." So while teachers' wages were frozen for years, "administrators were voting to build new athletic fields and installing new lawn sprinklers."

"But mainly," she says, "it was power and an unwillingness to share it in any way" that characterized the Hill Murray campaign.

What's It About?

Power. Who has it, who gets to measure it, who gets to keep it, who must share it, who gets to distribute itùthese issues are at the heart of union organizing. And even though there is disagreement as to whether or not church-related organizing is uniquely difficult, there seems to be little argument that control of power and resources plays a major role in the drama when churches and unions collide.

Michael Szpak, religion and labor coordinator with the Field Mobilization Department of the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., works to reconcile the rift between churches and labor and to encourage the shared values between the two. It is "hard to organize no matter where you are," he says. "Owners can always create a campaign which will disrupt the process. All they have to do is fire somebody."

But Szpak sees church-based institutions as "held captive in our culture. They commit to Jesus Christ and to people but when it comes to freedom of association that's different because they are held captive by a culture of capitalism."

In other words, the hyperkinetic pressure of Wall Street, the demands of managed care, crumbling inner cities, bankrupt school systems, an aging population, and a highly competitive economy reduce employersùall employersùto reactions of economic fight or flight. It may just be that we no longer live in a culture where people come first. Is that possible? Can the values that gave rise to the healing and caring industries survive in such an economic environment?

"It is a difficult process," Szpak admits, "asking people to come together in this individualistic culture, asking them to band together to achieve mutual goals in the American mindset of æCan I trust you?' One would hope," he says, "that the religious community will bear witness to the importance of solidarity." As one sign of hope, Szpak cites the "Union Cities Initiative," an effort between the AFL-CIO and churches across the country to work collaboratively through communities' central labor bodies to find common ground between religion and labor.

"We have values in common, yes," he says. "Respect for the individual and solidarity and...social and economic justice, justice in the workplace. We share those. But it is hard. Employers are still employers first."

What Are the Right Questions?

It may be that the right question is not, Why are church-connected institutions hard to organize? but Can we expect these institutions to reflect the values that birthed them 300 years ago? And if we should find that our "caring industries" are now megacorporations, church and state and Wall Street rolled into one, what does that mean for us as employees and consumers? Are we part of the problem, expecting modern-day systems to have 21st-century equipment and technology and 17th-century values? And are they part of the problem, pretending that they do?

Regardless, one thing seems certain: When institutions that seek to end suffering do so with disregard for the suffering of their own employees, those employees may pick up the phone and call a union to help restore balance, no matter whose name is hung above the employer's door.

JANE SAMUELS was an organizer, negotiator, and publicist for labor unions for 15 years. She has a master's in religion and theology from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. She lives in Minneapolis.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Resources

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)