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  • With God on Our Side: The Struggle for Workers’ Rights in a Catholic Hospital by Adam D. Reich
  • Kimball Baker
With God on Our Side: The Struggle for Workers’ Rights in a Catholic Hospital. By Adam D. Reich. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. 192 pp. $26.00.

In April 2012, a contract agreement was reached between Santa Rosa (California) Memorial Hospital and the National Union of Healthcare Workers, culminating an eight-year struggle by the hospital’s workers to organize. This book is the story of that struggle up to November 2011, when the book had to go to press with negotiations still in progress nearly two years after workers voted for the union and nearly a year after the hospital recognized it.

Such delay, author Reich observes, is typical of the U.S. labor scene these days, where “[A]ccording to most labor scholars, current labor law makes it very difficult to organize a union successfully.” As a result of this and of a long and concerted anti-union drive by the nation’s corporate interests, he adds, the unionized portion of the American private-sector workforce dropped from 35 percent several decades ago to a woeful seven percent today.

Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital (SRMH), about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, is part of a thirteen-hospital system presided over by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. Reich notes that, as with most orders overseeing hospitals now, the sisters gradually relinquished first nursing care and then administrative responsibilities, but a strong compassionate-care legacy remained, and it was grounded in Catholic teachings of social justice. [End Page 83]

This legacy and these teachings became a major focus of the organizing struggle at SRMH, with each side claiming their sanction for its ideas and actions (thus the book’s title). The hospital, Reich points out, depicted unionization as a threat to its long-held patient-care values, while workers asserted that these values eroded as the hospital balanced its budgets at the expense of justice for its workers, and that a union would actually help these workers improve patient care.

While Reich characterizes much of the hospital’s legacy argument as a patina on hard-nosed behavior now typical of anti-union employers, he also faults the initial union which sought to represent the hospital’s workers – the Service Employees’ International Union-United Healthcare Workers West – for not making enough out of the organizing workers’ huge emotional investments in patient-care issues. This neglect, Reich contends, made it easier for hospital management to practice such tactics as long delays (already noted), intimidation, misinformation, and monopolizing the debate.

According to Reich, only when union organizers and worker leaders implemented a values-based strategy of their own, with workers sharing stories showing their commitment to patient care, did the organizing campaign gain the momentum it needed. Reich’s central thesis is that unions and workers will increase their workplace voice and power if they add a strong ideological and emotional component to their time-honored strategies of exerting economic and political leverage and of forging strong community alliances.

This is a timely and compelling affirmation. It gives Reich’s work a pathfinding quality which makes the book an invaluable resource for workers, labor leaders and activists, labor students and scholars, and anyone attempting to improve labor-management relationships. Particularly noteworthy are its positive exploration of Catholic social teachings on work and workers, and its emphasis on the ecumenism of such teachings – an aspect whose foremost exemplar today is the Chicago-based organization Interfaith Worker Justice and its 75 local affiliates around the nation.

A major drawback of the work is its insufficient attention to the Catholic social-action movement in this country from the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s, a too-overlooked movement whose story I tell in ”Go to the Worker”: America’s Labor Apostles (Marquette University Press, 2010). This movement played a key role in New Deal unionization and was permeated by the same ideas and values which Reich espouses for present and future unionization.

To the author’s credit, he acknowledges the beneficial impact of Rerum Novarum, Laborem Exercens, and the...


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pp. 83-85
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