N.Y. Nurses Win Support in Labor Dispute

Article excerpt

A Jewish congressman has called on Catholic leaders to uphold church teaching in a bitter five-month-old labor dispute at Mercy Community Hospital, located in his district in Port Jervis, N.Y. The dispute appears to be a growing embarrassment to the church.

Representative Benjamin A. Gilman, R-N.Y., a leader in the new Republican Congress, declared his support for 100 registered nurses on strike at the church-operated hospital in a Jan. 16 letter to the union.

"I firmly believe that the unwillingness of the Mercy management to negotiate and their hiring of permanent replacements is contrary to the teachings of the Catholic church," Gilman said in a letter of support for the union.

Gilman's statement adds another layers of irony to a conflict in which union officials and local politicians have accused the hospital of disregarding Catholic social doctrine.

According to Gilman's press secretary, Andrew J. Zarutskie, "The congressman sees his intervention ... as a mitzvah," Hebrew for "good deed."

What began as a dispute over wages and working conditions has turned into a fight for collective bargaining. Last month the hospital withdrew recognition of Local 1199 of the National Health and Human Services Employees Union representing the nurses. The hospital had circulated an antiunion petition among replacements.

Protesting what they say is union-busting, two 1199 activists began a fast Jan. 12. Other strikers joined in 24-hour stints.

"We have reached a critical point in this conflict and feel the time has come to seek spiritual guidance in our quest for justice," said a statement from nurse Brenda Wolpert and Local 1199 Vice President Terry Alaimo, who entered the third week of their fast as NCR went to press. "We take great strength from the historic Catholic commitment to social justice."

Mercy Community Hospital is affiliated with the Sisters of Mercy, an order committed to issues of economic justice. The hospital is located within the New York archdiocese where Cardinal John J. O'Connor has heralded respect for union rights in Catholic and other institutions.

Before he publicly came out in support of the union, Gilman sent a letter to O'Connor, welcoming "any further intervention by Your Eminence" in the Mercy dispute. Gilman has consistently voted pro-labor in Congress.

"The sad thing at Mercy hospital is that the administration doesn't want to negotiate at all," said Zarutskie. …