In the Providence Portland Medical Center administrative offices April 17, Fr. Jack Mosbrucker delivers a statement urging management to halt appeals to a pro-union vote that several judges have approved as valid. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
In the Providence Portland Medical Center administrative offices April 17, Fr. Jack Mosbrucker delivers a statement urging management to halt appeals to a pro-union vote that several judges have approved as valid. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
A team of local priests is accompanying workers at Providence Portland Medical Center in asking hospital management to accept a vote in favor of unionization.

In December, more than 700 housekeepers, food service workers, nursing aides and diagnostic technicians cast ballots to decide if support staff would join the Service Employees International Union. The tally was close, with some ballots contested by Providence leadership. But a federal judge and then a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that those who want a union prevailed by a single vote. Providence plans a further appeal.

“We want to lend a moral voice to the workers’ election,” said Father Jack Mosbrucker, a retired pastor. “It is something the workers decided would improve their jobs and improve patient care. Workers say they have waited long enough. It’s time to get to the bargaining table.”

After Father Mosbrucker helped lead a noontime march of 60 staff to the hospital’s administrative offices April 17, he cited Catholic teaching on the rights of laborers to organize.

Father Mosbrucker and the workers hoped to deliver letters personally to Krista Farnham, chief executive of Providence Portland Medical Center. When a receptionist said Farnham was in a meeting, speakers addressed the receptionist instead.

Father Mosbrucker presented a petition signed by 650 faith leaders and supporters who urge Providence to halt its appeals. “I would expect that Providence would cooperate with these workers and go into contract negotiations,” the priest said.

In the document “Respecting the Just Rights of Workers,” issued in 2009, the U.S. Catholic bishops say that hospitals are not to use anti-union tactics and unions are not to attack hospitals. “The rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively are no less parts of Catholic social thought than the teachings concerning the fundamental right of access to health care,” the bishops said, calling for a spirit of agreement.

“It’s a very strong Catholic teaching,” said Father David Zegar, pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland. He joined the march to the administrative offices.

“Workers are to have a voice in the workplace,” Father Zegar said. “The church is here to accompany them in their struggles. The church cares.”

Father Zegar said that Father Bob Krueger had hoped to join the march, but was too ill.

In addition to Fathers Mosbrucker and Zegar, the petition was signed by Msgr. Chuck Lienert, Father Joseph McMahon and Father Ted Frison. Four women religious signed: Holy Names Sisters Phyllis Jaskowiak, Janina Kokorowski, Brigid Baumann and Lucinda Peightal.

Some Providence workers, especially nursing aides, say staffing levels are too low and pose dangers for patients’ well-being.

“Management says a union will disrupt the core values. That is hogwash,” said Jessica Hunter, a housekeeper. “It’s just the opposite. I don’t know how many times we have said, ‘We need more people. We need more people.’”

Other demands by workers include lower cost health coverage and pay that allows them to live in the Northeast Portland neighborhood surrounding the hospital.

Support staff at Providence Milwaukie Hospital voted last year to join the SEIU. About 85 percent of Milwaukie workers have signed on.

When asked for a comment, Providence officials supplied an April 17 memo Farnham sent to Providence Portland staff.

In the memo, Farnham said Providence still disputes the validity of one ballot and will be asking the full National Labor Relations Board, located in Washington, D.C., to review the decision. Indicating that the hospital is looking out for the rights of workers who voted against the union, she said the process could take several more months.

“We promised our caregivers to fully support that every properly cast ballot must be counted if they are within the defined scope for the election as determined by existing NLRB law,” Farnham said. “We made that pledge to our caregivers and we remain committed to it. We believe it is the right thing to do. In a one-vote election, with strong opinions on each side, we owe it to our caregivers to honor our pledge.”

Catholic hospitals, which provide a large amount of charity care while trying to provide the latest in medicine, can have trouble making the books balance. From managers’ point of view, unionization can add a new element to the challenge if workers ask for improvements that have price tags.

Some employees see it differently. “We feel Providence administration is losing sight of the mission of putting the patient first and the focus is on expansion and the bottom line,” supply chain worker Cindy Hildenbrand said in an April 17 statement in the administrative offices. Hildenbrand announced that the hospital’s supply chain crew had taken its own vote to unionize.

Providence nurses already belong to a union and are backing the efforts of support staff to follow the path.

“Management keeps appealing and appealing and appealing,” said Sabra Bederka, chair of the nurses’ union at Providence Portland. “Staff voted and management should honor their wishes.”

“It was close, but a win is a win,” said Jean Eilers, a member of St. Andrew Parish and a leader in the Portland Jobs with Justice faith-labor committee. “Providence has fought it.”

Eilers said a previous attempt by support workers to form a union failed a decade ago. Carolyn Matthews, who worked in a Providence Portland behavioral health unit at the time, said the tactic from administrators then was delay. “Having a voice is the big thing when people move to join a union,” Matthews said.