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Tensions between church operated hospitals and the nation’s largest medical trade union are growing in Germany after the Catholic church failed last week to agree a new contract with its 480000 health and social workers.
Germany’s largest medical trade union, the Marburger Bund, wants better pay and working conditions for doctors in Catholic and Evangelical hospitals, demanding that church hospitals adopt a wage agreement already approved last year by university and public hospitals.
About 300 doctors demonstrated earlier this month in Bad Honnef, the town where contract negotiations were being held in the labour rights commission of Caritas, the Catholic church’s organisation that oversees 500 of Germany’s 2100 hospitals. The commission consists of an equal number of representatives of the employers and employees.
The mood between Marburger Bund and the churches in recent weeks has rapidly deteriorated after the trade union publicised results of its own poll of doctors indicating widespread dissatisfaction with church hospitals.
The German Association of Catholic Hospitals (KKVD), which is part of Caritas, also took offence at the trade union’s press release which was headed: “Exploitation and salary theft: church hospitals are the worst employers.” The union asserted that in comparison with public and university hospitals, church hospitals pay less, force doctors to work “illegal shifts,” and often do not pay for overtime.
Church officials were particularly unhappy with a statement in the release from Frank Ulrich Montgomery, a former head of the Marburger Bund, that said that churches were committing “exploitation in the name of the Lord,” a phrase now being used as a rallying cry of the Marburger Bund.
Thomas Vortkamp, spokesman for German Association of Catholic Hospitals, said of the comment, “We are not amused. We are angry.” And then he added, “We have to accept that not all doctors like the church. But, of course, only a few doctors are saying these things.” He said negotiations would not start again until next year, when Caritas would consider a 2.5% wage increase, compared with the 3% demanded by the staff side.
The Catholic and Evangelical hospital associations refuted the allegations of doctor dissatisfaction, saying that their doctors are generally highly satisfied. They both questioned the accuracy of the Marburger Bund poll.
Both the German Ministry of Health and the German Hospital Federation declined to comment.
Rudolf Henke, the new head of the Marburger Bund and a doctor at the Catholic church operated St Antonius Hospital, in Eschweiler, told the BMJ, “I am not disrespectful of the church in any way. We love the ethical approach of church hospitals. But what we want is that working conditions improve.”
Dr Henke said that strikes at church hospitals were not an option because the German constitution gave churches virtual autonomy in labour relations. Until 2004 church hospitals did not actively participate in labour negotiations between health workers and public hospitals but generally adopted terms of new agreements, he said.
Mr Vortkamp says that until 2004 doctors had negotiated as part of a broad team of healthcare workers represented by one of Germany’s largest labour unions. After 2004 Marburger Bund broke ranks with other healthcare workers to negotiate only on behalf of doctors, Mr Vortkamp said. Only then did church hospitals set up their own negotiating system, he explained.