UKIAH VALLEY MEDICAL CENTER: At Center Of Unique Unionization Dispute
In what may become "a test case for worker rights in religious hospitals," the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the California Nurses Association is battling Ukiah Valley Medical Center over whether the hospital's affiliation with the Seventh Day Adventist Church should exempt it from labor laws. Citing low pay and pressure to "do more and more with less and less," three quarters of the hospital's 170 nurses "signed cards requesting a union election." Although 150 of the nurses do not hold Adventist beliefs, the hospital's attorneys argued in a brief submitted last week to the National Labor Relations Board that the "teachings of the Adventist faith prohibit Adventist institutions such as Ukiah from recognizing or bargaining with a union."
At The Heart Of The Case
Prior to 1993, courts "had ruled that religious hospitals were clearly covered by federal labor laws," but the hospital's attorneys have pinned their case to a law that may challenge that precedent. The 1993 law, known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, says the government must demonstrate a "compelling state interest" before requiring obedience to a law that conflicts with religious beliefs. The hospital's brief continued, "The Church believes that the self-sacrifice required for its healing mission is inherently incompatible with the economically self-serving goals of unions." In testimony before the NLRB, Alan Reinach, an Adventist official, said, "We are required to seek God's direct guidance and direction with how we employ our resources. [Union negotiations] would be a direct interference with our process of seeking God's guidance and leadership for the operation of the institution."
Not So Fast
CNA attorney Jane Lawhon said it is "questionable whether" the religious freedom statute is constitutional. And CNA Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro said, "This is such a misuse of religion that it's astounding. There isn't anything in the law that says employers should be able to force their religious beliefs (about unions) on their workers." The Chronicle reports that most of Ukiah's nurses "earn about $20 an hour ... several dollars less than at some other rural hospitals." Ukiah nurse Cinda Johansen said, "We're sort of a captive audience here" since Ukiah is the town's only hospital. Ukiah officials say they will press their "case through the NLRB's hearing process" and, "if necessary," appeal to the Supreme Court. Groups on both sides of the issue will watch the case closely, as the Chronicle reports that unionization of health care workers "has been on the upswing ... as workers chafe against the cost-cutting that has accompanied the spread of managed care" (DeBare, 10/29).