Justice-seekers fill St. Viators pews

CHICAGO – The pews at St. Viator’s church filled with health care workers, their children and supporters on a chilly May 2 Sunday. Green T-shirts of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees peeked out from the winter parkas. Beneath the church’s beautiful stained glass windows, Resurrection Health Care workers and their supporters – 1,000 strong – lifted their hearts and spirits with song, solidarity and the righteous fire of justice, as they rallied for union rights, dignity and respect. They got rousing backing from AFSCME international President Gerald McEntee.

“How in God’s name can you work in the health care field and not receive decent health care from the employer?” McEntee roared.

“May 6-12 is national nurses week,” he noted. “You might get a bagel or flowers, which is nice, but recognition of our union is even better.”

Resurrection Health Care, a Catholic-run health care provider, includes nine hospitals in the area. The web site of this “not-for-profit” corporation, sponsored by Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth and the Sisters of the Resurrection, says it is “committed to improving the health and well-being of our community.”

Yet Resurrection workers told a story of “creeping corporatization” that directly contradicts this mission.

Danuta Laboda, a cardiac unit registered nurse, told the rally that in “becoming a corporation,” Resurrection is “losing touch” with communities.

“Their obsession with the budget makes it impossible to focus on patients,” she said. “Good nurses leave the hospitals. They want to give time to patients, but it is often impossible with the current staffing levels.” Workers decided the only way to fight this was to organize a union, Laboda said. “Corporatization affects everyone – nurses, patients, food service and housekeepers.”

Father Mike Knotek cited the parable of Paul and Barnabas, who “brushed off their feet and moved on.” That was the right thing to do at the time, he said, “but not here and not now. None of us are moving on. We are here to stay and fight.” Knotek worked at Resurrection as a drug counselor and was told by management not to spend so much time with the homeless.

“Initially I came up with excuses why management acted the way it did,” the priest said. “Folks, I’ve run out of excuses.”

Invoking Catholic teachings, Knotek said it is a God-given right for everybody to have a decent job with decent pay, and to go to any institution and be treated with dignity and compassion.

Nurse Zulema Gonzalez said she had wanted to be a nurse since she was a little girl, when her parents took her to the hospital to translate for them. She said she had enjoyed working at St. Mary’s Hospital, but since Resurrection Health Care took over it is “much more corporate.”

“Supervisors make you feel it’s wrong to get paid for more than 8 hours. You punch out and then finish your work,” she said.

Housekeeper Shirley Brown has worked at Westlake Hospital for eight years. “It was like a family until Resurrection bought it,” she said. The workload was doubled and tripled with no increase in pay and not enough supplies to do the job. She said most housekeepers earn $8 per hour, and have to pay $100-$200 every two weeks for health insurance with nothing to retire on.

After union leaflets were put in workers’ mailboxes, Brown said, management removed the mailboxes. Resurrection has held anti-union meetings, bullied workers into signing anti-union petitions and “persecuted workers for having a different opinion,” she said.

AFSCME District Council 31 Executive Director Henry Bayer said Resurrection’s revenue was more than $1 billion last year and its CEO made $1 million. “Resurrection’s business profits increased 130 percent last year,” he said.

McEntee, himself a Catholic, said there are “a lot of Gospels and a lot of stories in the Catholic Church” that the workers can draw on. “Every day at battle makes workers and the union stronger. We are building power for 9,000 workers across this city.”

Also speaking were State Senator and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama, and Alderman Ricardo Munoz. Obama said Resurrection’s profit drive can only be countered by uniting and organizing. “The only way we can change that [profit] logic is working collectively together. That’s the essence of what the union movement is about,” he said.

“The least you can expect is respect. The least you can expect is access to the same health care services as you provide,” Obama told the cheering crowd.

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org.