Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Unprecedented Dialogue Bears Very Specific Fruit

I recently had the unique experience of sitting in on a conference call in person, as the USCCB's Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development facilitated the announcement of some "guidance and options" that emerged as a document, Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Catholic Health Care and Unions, from the unprecedented dialogue between the U.S. bishops, Catholic health care and labor leaders. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, moderated both the dialogue and the phone conference.

America Magazine has already blogged on the session, capturing quite a bit of its content and flavor.

The aim of the "guidance and options" dialogue and document was to create a fair process for Catholic health care workers to decide whether or not to form a union. This involved a long process of getting Catholic bishops, Catholic health care leaders and labor leaders to find common ground informed by Catholic social teaching.

Ultimately, the document proffers seven key principles of appropriate conduct between employers and union representatives:

-- demonstrate respect for each other’s organization and mission
-- provide workers with equal access to information from both sides
-- adhere to standards for truthfulness and balance in their communications
-- create a pressure-free environment
-- allow workers to vote through a fair and expeditious process
-- honor employees’ decision regardless of the outcome
-- create a system for enforcing these principles during the course of an organizing drive

That last point about enforcement raised a question from a reporter if these measures were going to be enforced by the dialogue panel that produced them. It was quickly noted that the document's "guidance and options" were just that and therefore non-binding. The point of non-binding seemed to elicit a tone of "well then, what's the point?" in the reporter's voice.

The points, it turned out, were several. First, Cardinal McCarrick pointed out, the document wasn't binding because the panel was not in authority to bind (trust a man who's participated in a conclave to know a little something about conferring the power to bind). That is, none of the organizations involved owed any sort of allegiance to the dialogue panel. But, it was then raised, those very organizations and institutions had come forward years ago and asked that a document of this sort be created. So, now that it's been made a reality, why would they not want to adopt its principles?

I believe it was Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Hospital Association who raised the point that these principles, though non-binding, reflect solid Catholic social teaching and would be in the best interest of any organization to implement.

So, while the unionization of Catholic health care workers may be a little on the esoteric side for some of us, this is still a happy instance of dialogue and working toward common ground bearing fruit for the benefit of all involved.

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