Catholic Groups among Those Squaring off on Union Bill

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Catholic activists supporting the Employee Free Choice Act--the labor movement's top legislative priority in Congress--say the bill is rooted in church social teaching inspired by papal encyclicals dating back more than a century. The measure is needed, say supporters, to counteract management efforts to stymie employee organizing efforts and to boost worker wages and benefits.

But those who oppose key components of the bill, including some major Catholic institutions, argue that the legislation would encourage labor organizers to bully potential members into union membership by denying workers secret-ballot elections.

The focus of the debate is a provision in the free choice act that would require the National Labor Relations Board to certify a union if a majority of employees in a bargaining unit sign a petition, or "card," indicating their support for the effort. If an agreement between management and labor has not been reached within 120 days of certification, the parties would be required to bring negotiations to an arbitration board for settlement.

Members of the business community who oppose the legislation argue that in addition to depriving workers-of their right to a secret-ballot election, the new provisions would subject them to possible pressure by peers and union organizers. But supporters of the bill say the current system is weighted in favor of employers, who can, with little or no penalty, leverage intimidation against employees trying to organize a union.

"This is about leveling the playing field and making sure that workers can have a fair stake in our economy," said Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, an organization supporting the bill. Proponents of the bill note that unionized workers earn considerably more than their non-union counterparts and are much more likely to have employer-provided health insurance.

Sister of Charity Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the 2,000-plus-member Catholic Health Association, said the measure would tilt the system in favor of unions, making employees satisfied with their current workplace rights subject to coercion. Signing a card or a petition "still has you publicly having to declare your choice," Keehan said. "We believe strongly--it's the consensus of our [members]--that choice needs to be protected by secret ballot," she said.

Keehan's comments were echoed by Carol Aaron, vice president of labor and employee relations at St. Joseph Health System, which owns and administers 14 hospitals in California, Texas and New Mexico. "We're pro-employee," Aaron said of the organization, and in keeping with Catholic social teaching, committed to creating a workplace that is free of intimidation and coercion. But she added that St. Joseph, which won a Gallup Great Workplace Award last year and has a 20-year history of union representation, is concerned that the free choice act would threaten employees' democratic right to a secret-ballot election.

Both the Catholic Health Association and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have not officially taken a stand on the bill. The measure is opposed by a broad coalition of business groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce.

"This is the mother of all battles," said Joseph Fahey, professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York and chair of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice. …