The labor relations campaign implemented by Catholic Healthcare West with guidance and counseling from BSMG Worldwide to defeat the employee majority vote to join the Service Employee International Union is perhaps the best example of reputation management in the workplace at its finest.  The communications team faced several obstacles throughout the campaign, as well as judgement and opposition from nearly every direction, including the organizing union, community and Catholic church.  Yet, despite the obstacles and opposition, the reputation management efforts were successful and Catholic Healthcare West prevailed in convincing its employees that a union was not necessary in its hospitals.


A February 1999 New York Times article indicated that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had identified Catholic Healthcare West (CHW) as a primary target in its organizing campaign for the summer of 1999.  The SEIU launched an aggressive corporate campaign against two CHW Southern California hospitals, St. Francis Medical Center and Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center attacking the hospitals’ core values and community service records.  

In both hospitals, the strong tradition of community service and their Catholic mission and values have always been the core motivation guiding the work of employees.  Employees expressed extreme pride in their work, and enjoyed a close and open relationship with hospital management.  When the SEIU launched its aggressive organizing efforts at these hospitals, CHW management was concerned that employees would be swayed by the SEIU’s misinformation and negative campaign tactics into joining without considering how a union might significantly change the positive work environment they currently enjoyed.


BSMG was retained to work in cooperation with hospital and CHW corporate management to design a strategy that would give employees the information they needed to make an informed decision about union representation without stooping to the SEIU’s negative campaign tactics.


The primary audience was those employees directly targeted by the SEIU for organizing.  At the same time, there were several secondary audiences that were important to reach and keep informed including all other hospital employees, physicians & medical staff, the religious community, the surrounding neighborhood community, community leaders, affiliated organizations, and employees at other CHW hospitals.  


With strong encouragement from church leaders to remain positive in our campaign, we formed a working group at the hospital that consisted of hospital and CHW management along with members of the religious community who were instrumental in helping to guide our campaign. With their help, we determined that with accurate and straightforward information about the potential impact and costs of union representation, employees would choose not to be represented by a union.  


BSMG and our hospital management team would develop a multi-disciplinary campaign enlisting the assistance of senior hospital medical staff to talk with their staff individually to provide them with the information they needed to make an informed decision about union representation.  To do this, we would need to educate the senior hospital staff about union organizing campaigns, provide them with the information they would need to share with their staff, and inspire them to share the hospital’s perspective on the issues with their staff.


We took a two-tiered approach to these education initiatives.  The long, drawn out union organizing campaign was taking a toll on the morale of the hospital employees.  To rebuild morale and pride in the hospital, we developed a few key initiatives focused specifically on lifting employee spirits.  At the same time, we launched a targeted and aggressive education campaign that focused on providing internal and external audiences accurate information about union organization.  We appealed to our constituents – the religious community, patients, medical staff, hospital communities and the public – to consider the facts and not to jump too quickly to conclusions about union representation.


Morale Building Initiatives – To build morale at the hospital we introduced a poster series called, “The Heart of Robert F. Kennedy/St. Francis Medical Center” featuring employees who represented the true spirit of the hospitals’ guiding mission and principles.  The posters were prominently displayed around the hospitals, reproduced as flyers and newspaper ads, and mailed to key constituents.  We also published a series of communications pieces featuring the many community service outreach programs sponsored by each of the hospitals and designed a piece called “Our Values At Work” to showcase Catholic values at work in CHW hospitals.  Around the holidays, we initiated a series of morale building events to thank employees for their outstanding contributions throughout the year.  

When the SEIU launched an unfair attack on the hospitals casting doubt on the hospitals’ commitment to the underserved, we were ready.  Rather than pander to the untrue allegations made by the SEIU, we countered with a campaign to highlight individual charity care programs showing the depth and breadth of the hospitals’ commitment to their own communities.  We developed a series of full-page community benefit ads for local newspapers highlighting the individual programs. This campaign completely neutralized the charity care issue and, at the same time, provided extra visibility for these community outreach programs.  

Internal & External Education Campaign – We were convinced that if employees had factual information, they would prefer to maintain their direct relationship with hospital management and choose not to be represented by the SEIU.  Working with management and clergy, we designed a campaign around the message, “You Should Decide.”  We launched a series of posters, letters to employees, banners on the hospitals reminding employees to make an informed decision, and regular flyers in both English and Spanish that simply and accurately presented the facts about union organization.  

At the same time, we appealed to the religious community and other external constituents through a series of letters and briefings to educate them about the facts of the corporate campaign against these hospitals, and management’s perspective on the issue of union representation.  

During the final weeks of the education campaign, we held daily management meetings at both hospitals to refine the strategy and encourage constant dialogue among staff.  We issued one page “Decision 2000” and “It’s About You” messages twice weekly to inform employees about different aspects of unionization.  In the final days of the campaign, we developed posters, flyers and letters with specific voting information and encouraged personal messages from the hospital president and other respected leaders in the community.  On the evening of the election, we hosted an employee gathering with t-shirts, balloons and food to await the results.  


The close historical association between the Catholic Church and labor unions presented an unusual challenge in designing this campaign.  CHW needed to heed the wishes of its Catholic sponsors while at the same time wanted to do what they felt was in the best interest of their own employees.  Having an impact while countering the SEIU’s negative attacks with positive messages presented a significant challenge.

On March 22nd and 23rd, 2000, the service employees at St. Francis and Robert F. Kennedy Medical Centers overwhelmingly rejected union membership in favor of maintaining their direct relationship with management.  Since then, organizing efforts by the SEIU against all CHW Hospitals have nearly ceased.