Nursing Home Workers Win Big After Threatening to Strike: “We Have the Power Now”

David Moberg May 29, 2017

Equally important to most workers as pay, the new contract gives them more protection of rights on the job. (SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana/ Facebook)

CHICA­GO — For more than two years, around 10,000 Illi­nois nurs­ing home work­ers worked with­out a new union con­tract — wait­ing and agi­tat­ing for a long over­due pay raise and bet­ter pro­tec­tion of their rights on the job. Those rights, they argued, would also improve the care of the ill and elder­ly in their charge.

Fed up with the own­ers’ intran­si­gence, 5,000 of those work­ers announced that they were pre­pared to walk out. By rais­ing the cred­i­ble threat of the biggest strike in the his­to­ry of the U.S. nurs­ing home indus­try, the union con­vinced the lead­ing employ­er alliance in the state — the Illi­nois Asso­ci­a­tion of Health Care Facil­i­ties — to throw in the tow­el at the last minute.

Ear­ly this month, the own­ers agreed to most of the union’s key demands, and the union called off the strike. Lat­er, work­ers vot­ed, and 97 per­cent approved the contract.

The work­ers — mem­bers of a large four-state health­care local of the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) — seemed hap­py with their finan­cial gains, even if some thought they deserved more. (SEIU cal­cu­lates that it rep­re­sents 25 per­cent of Illi­nois nurs­ing home work­ers and 75 per­cent of those in the Chica­go met­ro­pol­i­tan area.)

It is great. I’m not going to com­plain,” said Pamela Bleck­er, whose pay after 17 years as a cer­ti­fied nurs­ing assis­tant will rise from $11.31 an hour to $13.69 an hour under the new con­tract. I think it could have been more, but some­thing beats noth­ing. I would have want­ed $15 an hour. Of course, I was will­ing and ready to strike.”

Oh, yeah, I was ready to strike,” said William Rose, 56, who works in house­keep­ing and dietary depart­ments in Chicago’s west side. I want­ed to go straight for $15, but it was pret­ty fair, bet­ter than what [the employ­ers] said they could do.”

He said he also felt hope­ful that the con­tract would help the union reduce the per­sis­tent prob­lem of under­staffing where he works.

It was great to have this con­tract,” said Susana Fragoso, 41, a cer­ti­fied nurs­ing assis­tant. Some peo­ple were mak­ing $8.55 an hour, and under the new con­tract they would make over $11, some close to $12, but over­all there will be an aver­age of a 24 per­cent increase in pay.”

But equal­ly impor­tant to most work­ers as pay, the con­tract gives them more pro­tec­tion of rights on the job — faster griev­ance pro­ce­dures, stronger staffing rules, few­er ways for employ­ers to raise issues of immi­gra­tion sta­tus and pro­tec­tions against man­age­ment under­min­ing high­er-paid work­ers with pref­er­ences for those paid less.

Nurs­ing home work­ers also learned how to deal with many of their prob­lems by col­lec­tive­ly con­fronting their super­vi­sors. That expe­ri­ence led to reliance dur­ing nego­ti­a­tions — and a strike, had it been need­ed — on con­tract action teams,” which kept work­ers involved in the fight, mak­ing it a total­ly dif­fer­ent ball game,” accord­ing to house­keep­er Francine Rico.

Nurs­ing homes rarely occu­py the head­lines, reflect­ing pop­u­lar neglect of the res­i­dents as much as the work­ers. But some ana­lysts see such per­son­al care work as the jobs of the future. Among the fastest grow­ing occu­pa­tions, accord­ing to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics, are nurs­ing, ther­a­py and oth­er exam­ples of peo­ple car­ing for peo­ple. Finan­cial Times colum­nist Sarah O’Connor writes that if these are the fastest-grow­ing jobs in the econ­o­my and some of the unique­ly human jobs of the future, we need to make them better.”

The work­ers’ con­trac­tu­al gains require employ­ers to pay work­ers bet­ter and, indi­rect­ly, improve care for res­i­dents. But sat­is­fac­to­ry long-term nurs­ing home care (or care at a client’s home when it’s the choice of patients or doc­tors) will require more pub­lic funds, such as Medicare and Med­ic­aid. Those pro­grams, how­ev­er, could be vul­ner­a­ble under the cur­rent Repub­li­can administration.

More pub­lic fund­ing needs to be linked with oth­er reforms to try to ensure high qual­i­ty and rel­a­tive­ly equal care for every­one, accord­ing to SEIU. Chief nego­tia­tor for the union, Lar­ry Alcoff, notes that New York offers the gold stan­dard” in res­i­den­tial nurs­ing home care and relies heav­i­ly on non-prof­it nurs­ing homes. Pub­lic or non-prof­it facil­i­ties are less like­ly to be focused on real estate strate­gies and investor prof­its and more on qual­i­ty of care, he says. The indus­try needs to be more account­able to res­i­dents, their fam­i­lies, the work­ers and the pub­lic at large. Alcoff argues for a re-bal­anc­ing of pri­or­i­ties” (such as choic­es of more appro­pri­ate mod­els of care, at or away from home) and for increased pub­lic finan­cial sup­port. In that vein, the Illi­nois con­tract includes lan­guage designed to make the nurs­ing home own­ers more account­able for pro­vid­ing high-qual­i­ty care standards.

The achieve­ments of the almost-strike fall into two broad cat­e­gories, both impor­tant. On the one hand, work­ers scored sig­nif­i­cant gains in mate­r­i­al wel­fare. On the oth­er hand, they strength­ened their moral author­i­ty and abil­i­ty to con­tin­ue their fight by cre­at­ing more durable means of col­lec­tive power.

Here is how two nurs­ing home work­ers summed up their success:

It’s going to make a big dif­fer­ence for me and my fam­i­ly,” said Debra Ward, 56, who has worked in nurs­ing homes for 10 years and served on the bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee. I knew it would be tough. I didn’t want to go on strike, but enough was enough.”

Next time will be a total­ly dif­fer­ent ball game,” said Rico. We are going to increase our stew­ard lead­er­ship and be pre­pared. Most impor­tant, we have shift­ed the pow­er at work. We have the pow­er now.”

David Moberg, a senior edi­tor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the mag­a­zine since it began pub­lish­ing in 1976. Before join­ing In These Times, he com­plet­ed his work for a Ph.D. in anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and worked for Newsweek. He has received fel­low­ships from the John D. and Cather­ine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion and the Nation Insti­tute for research on the new glob­al economy.

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