Connecticut nursing home workers win strike

Workers at four Connecticut nursing homes on Monday returned to work more than a year after they went on strike. They won a new three-year contract that calls for a modest raise, will receive lump sum payments totaling more than $500,000, protected their jobs from replacement workers, and kept their union intact.

“This was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do–and the most worthwhile,” said April Grey a certified nursing assistant at one of the nursing homes. “We fought for ourselves and our families, but we fought hard for our residents (of the nursing homes) and our communities, and for justice. We persisted against all odds–and we won.”

The strike began in April 2010 after the workers’ union, the New England Health Care Employees Union SEIU District 1199, and the nursing homes’ owner Spectrum Healthcare failed to reach an agreement on a new contract. The evidence strongly suggests that the company was trying to break the union.

Prior to the strike, Spectrum management at the four nursing homes engaged in a spate of firings and suspensions. It appeared to the workers and their union that the company was targeting union activists to intimidate other workers and weaken support for the union. Four months after the strike began, investigators from the NLRB agreed and charged the company with unfair labor practices for firing and suspending workers “because (they) joined and assisted the union and . . . to discourage other employees from engaging in these activities.”

During negotiations for the new contract, Spectrum management demanded concessions from the union that it knew would be hard for workers to accept. Spectrum wanted to reduce pay for injured workers working light duty assignments. “The worst thing is the light-duty pay,” nursing assistant Sue Dargiewicz told the Connecticut Post during the strike.  “If you’re injured on the job, they want to pay us $10 an hour flat (for light duty work), and get the rest from worker’s comp, however you can get it.” Dargiewicz said that light duty proposal would mean a 50 percent pay cut for her and that workers compensation for anybody still working was unlikely.

Spectrum also wanted to tie future salaries to the state Medicaid rate paid to nursing homes, so that if the rate got cut, workers would be the ones absorbing the impact of lower rates. Additionally, the company wanted to eliminate three holidays.

After the strike began, Spectrum moved quickly to hire permanent replacement workers, which in effect told the 400 strikers that they no longer had jobs at the nursing homes. But the strikers held firm. After 100 days on strike, the Connecticut Post  reported that hundreds of strikers were still manning picket lines at the four nursing homes from 6:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight.

Strikers received support from other unions and community groups. A Solidarity Caravan originating in New Haven that visited all the strike sites was supported by the American Federation of Teachers, the Greater New Haven Central Labor Council, and other community and labor groups. Other solidarity actions were held during the strike.

Family members of nursing home residents also supported the strikers. Many fraternized with strikers on the picket lines, and some told strikers that their family members’ care had deteriorated since the replacement workers began working.

Five months after the strike began, the union made an unconditional offer to return to work, a tactical manuever designed to make the company take the strikers back and fire the replacement workers or face further unfair labor practice charges. When the company reinstated only a select number of strikers, the union filed another unfair labor complaint.

The NLRB consolidated the unfair labor charges, and began holding hearings on them in February. The hearings were still in progress in May when the union and company reached a final agreement. The agreement returns all strikers to work including 14 union activists fired prior to the strike, provides a 6 percent pay raise over three years, increases company pension contributions by 0.5 percent, provides a lump sum payment of $150,000 for lost back wages to 14 fired workers and another $395,000 lump sum payment to the employees’ pension fund. Workers also retain the three holidays.  The contract agreement ends the unfair labor practice hearings.

“They told us we were permanently replaced, and we’d never be back,” said Valery Johnson, a cook at one of the nursing homes after learning of the agreement. “Yet On May 16th, we’ll return to our positions, caring for the residents we’ve missed so much, with strength and unity in our hearts.”

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