Union issues and Adventism
Herald Sun, Oct. 4, 2002
A GROUP of minister-teachers with the Seventh Day Adventist Church have won the right to be covered by a union award, with access for the first time to paid maternity leave.
And the decision could flow on to more than 800 Seventh Day Adventist minister-teachers employed across Australia. The Independent Education Union (IEU) had taken a case to the NSW Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) on behalf of 37 minister-teachers in Sydney's north.
The union argued that minister-teachers of the church had the same rights to be covered by an award as any other teacher employed by an independent school.
IRC Deputy President John Grayson rejected the Seventh Day Adventists' argument that the minister-teachers should not be covered by the award because it would represent an undue influence of the state on the workings of the church.
NSW IEU state secretary Dick Shearman said the decision would bring the Seventh Day Adventist teachers into line with all other churches that operated schools.
"It sets a clear demarcation between the intersection of religious duty and industrial rights," Mr Shearman said.
"Just because you serve the church as a teacher doesn't mean you don't have any rights as a worker."
Mr Shearman said under the Seventh Day Adventist rules, minister-teachers had been exempt from award coverage and were employed the same way as nuns and priests.
"It was a test case and it now opens up the way for other minister teachers to come through and ask for award coverage and to be members of a union," he said.
Mr Shearman said the 37 teachers involved in the case would now be paid on a higher salary and have access to paid maternity leave and carers' leave.
Seventh Day Adventist national associate education director Dennis Reye said the church accepted the right of minister-teachers to seek award coverage.
"The tribunal has made its findings and we accept that," he said. "We hold no ill will towards any of the teachers because they were just exercising their legal right."
But Mr Reye said the findings could impact on the way the church pays other minister-teachers across the country.
"We will now need to decide where we go with this - not just in NSW but across Australia, because we operate on a national pay scale within our system," he said.
"This ruling is going to mean we are going to have to rethink how we do all that."
By Marcy Rein
Adventist Health System/West (AHS), owned and operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is putting a new twist on high-powered union busting.
When nurses at its Ukiah Valley Medical Center filed for representation by the California Nurses Assn., AHS asked the NLRB for a religious exemption from labor law. "[Collective bargaining] would be a direct interference with our process of seeking God's guidance and leadership for the operation of the institution," AHS attorneys wrote in their brief to the board.
The NLRB and federal courts have consistently ruled that First Amendment protections for freedom of religion don't excuse church-run hospitals from following labor law. But in this case, the Adventists invoked the 1993 Religious Freedom Restor-ation Act, passed by Congress to stiffen the Constitutional bar on government interference with religious institutions.
"The decision in this case could affect thousands of workers in the service sector, particularly those who work for religious-based non-profits," said CNA attorney M. Jane Lawhon.
The Adventists are major players in health care, Lawhon noted. The 19 AHS hospitals in California, Oregon, Washington state and Hawaii belong to an international network of close to 600 health care institutions. AHS alone employs some 13,000 people and brings in around $1 billion per year.
In Ukiah, the largest town in northern California's rural Mendocino County, AHS cornered the health care market ten years ago when it acquired Ukiah General Hospital and merged it with Ukiah Adventist to form UVMC. Only a handful of UVMC's 170 RNs belong to the Adventist church—but in a three-month union drive last year, close to 75 percent of the nurses signed cards to bring CNA to the hospital.
Anger at economic takeaways and concern for declining standards of patient care fueled their drive. The nurses hadn't had a cost of living increase since 1996, said Cinda Johansen, R.N., an operating room nurse with eleven years at UVMC. Last January the company froze wages, stopping step increases as well.
"But it wasn't just about the money," Johansen said. "What it comes down to is the safety of patients, wanting to give the best care."
Following the industry vogue of "restructuring," the hospital fired lots of nurses a couple years ago and replaced them with nurses' aides, Johansen said. One nurse had to supervise a team of less-trained people caring for 12-15 patients per shift, a situation the RNs found stressful, distressing and ultimately unsafe.
Local union and community members lined up behind the nurses, said CNA organizer Bonnie Castillo. The firefighters' union sent a public letter to the hospital's CEO, and letters to the editor of the Ukiah Daily Journal ran heavily in the nurses' favor.
"Lots of doctors-who are Republicans and not for unions-are behind us too," said Johansen.
Regional NLRB Director Robert Miller backed the nurses as well, with a Dec. 8 ruling that denied AHS' request for an exemption.
Applying the RFRA requires a balancing act: the government must have a compelling interest in applying a federal law that interferes with free exercise of religion, and no less restrictive way to satisfy that interest. In this case, Miller wrote, "We must balance the employer's First Amendment rights against the public interest in having health care services protected from disruption from industrial strife and disputes...and the First Amendment rights of employees to associate with other employees in organizing a union."
The board's Washington, D.C. office, however, ordered Miller's ruling stayed while it decides whether to grant a review. At press time the UVMC nurses were still waiting to hear whether the decision would stand and their election for union representation scheduled.
"Why the NLRB is allowing more delaying tactics is the big mystery," said Johansen. "But we still want to vote, and we're ready."
If the nurses win their election, the Adventists will almost certainly appeal. "But CNA plans to stick with the case, even if they try to take it to the Supreme Court," Castillo said.