Voters in Northampton County, Pennsylvania in the Lehigh Valley recently voted overwhelmingly to block efforts by the county government to privatize a county-owned nursing home that for 50 years has provided low-income elderly residents with high-quality, long-term care. In a referendum made possible by the hard work of union members and the families of nursing home residents, county voters rejected the proposed sale of Gracedale Nursing Home in Nazareth, Pennsylvania to TL Management and Global Healthcare, a for-profit nursing home operator, by a three-to-one margin.
“The people don’t want to sell Gracedale,” said Rev. Mario Martinez, a spokesperson for the Coalition of Alzheimer Families, which led the drive to keep the nursing home a public resource. “The only real mission we were on is to give people the vote. Now the people have spoken.”
Union workers played a big role in gathering signatures on the petition that called for a referendum on the proposed sale. United Steel Workers Local 2599, an amalgamated local that represents 50 nurses at Gracedale, mobilized its Rapid Response Network to gather petition signatures, and once the measure was put on the ballot, the union again mobilized its network to turn out a No vote.
The petition drive began in January during the heart of winter. Union members and other privatization opponents went door-to-door and stood out in the freezing cold in front of stores to collect petitions. The vote took place two weeks ago in the middle of May. Once again union members and their allies made phone calls, knocked on doors, and distributed literature to potential voters.
“Local 2599 gives us an inspiring story of taking on a local government in defense of workers and a vital part of the community,” said USW District 10 Rapid Response Coordinator Bob McAuliffe. “(Its Rapid Response Network is) a great example of how a dedicated local–engaged, informed, and activated local can make real and positive change in the lives of many.”
AFSCME, which represents other workers at Gracedale, also mobilized its staff to stop the nursing home’s privatization. Together, the two unions reached out to other locals and worked closely with the Coalition of Alzheimer Families in the campaign.
The unions were concerned that privatization would lead to job cuts, under staffing, and declining patient care, but they also recognized the important role that Gracedale plays in providing a safe, secure environment for low-income elderly retirees, and they recognized the community’s responsibility for taking care of its own.
“Part of this is a union issue,” said Jerry Green, president of Local 2599. “But this is also a moral issue.”
The county, which was facing a budget shortfall, decided last year to sell Gracedale, located on 365 acres of county owned property. The nursing home, which for most of its operation has generated revenue for the county, lost about $6 million in 2009 and 2010, and the county was hoping that the $24 million it would net by selling the home would help it close the shortfall without raising taxes.
But opponents of the sale like Rev. Martinez, whose mother resides at Gracedale, argued that the recent losses were caused by the recession and poor management at the home and that there was no guarantee that a for-profit company would continue to provide services to low-income residents.
Graceland, according to its website, sits in a “peaceful, rural setting surrounded by carefully landscaped grounds which include the beautiful Gracedale Gardens, a park like setting of trees, flowers, picnic tables, benches, and gazebos for residents and families to enjoy.” In other words, it’s the kind of place that only rich people can afford, and most people who rely on Medicare and Medicaid like most of those at Gracedale can only dream about.
Opponents of privatization also pointed out that poor investment decisions made by the county government exacerbated the county’s budget crunch, which made county leaders anxious to sell Gracedale. Several years ago, county leaders allowed bond salesmen to talk them into buying interest-rate swaps, a complicated derivative that was supposed to protect the county against swings in bond prices. But when the market crashed, these derivatives lost their value. Unfortunately for the county, it has a $14 million swaps payment that it must make this year.
“If that debt weren’t due, this crisis would be much less dire,” read an editorial in Lehigh Valley Express-Times.