Nursing home workers win landmark deal for higher wages, safer jobs
As you enter the Union King-Davis building in Hartford, Connecticut, the first thing you see is a very large photo of Martin Luther King Jr. standing behind a podium with “1199” on the front. The spirit of King – and founding union president Leon Davis – played a major role in the latest union victory for thousands of Connecticut healthcare workers from the 1199NE district of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU.
King’s principles are incorporated into the union’s latest organizing campaign. “The goal of direct action”, he wrote, “is to create a situation so rich in crises that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
District 1199 began negotiating with the owners of 44 nursing homes earlier this year for new collective agreements, as their previous ones expired on March 15. With no resolution in sight, workers voted in favor of strike action if an agreement could not be reached within two months.
As pressure on homeowners escalated, 5,000 nursing home workers finally reached a historic agreement just one day before their May 14 strike deadline. They earned a minimum wage of $ 20 an hour ($ 30 for licensed practical nurses). The current national average is $ 13.61. Additional funds have been set aside for new practices related to home security.
A double dose of pain
Nursing home workers received a double dose of distress during the COVID-19 pandemic. While caring for the elderly and the most vulnerable, they worked in poorly protected institutions and brought the disease home.
Francene Bailey is one of Connecticut’s wounded warriors. At the retirement home where she works, 40 patients have died from COVID-related causes. At the start of confinement in 2020, Francene herself contracted the virus. Her mother died of COVID a month later. In Connecticut, half of the 7,800 deaths from the pandemic are nursing home residents.
In order to protect their families, Francene and her colleagues tried to negotiate for months with their for-profit agencies (heavily state-funded through Medicaid) to secure the protections and income necessary for their survival. In July 2020, the union drew up a “bill of rights for long-term care workers”. This proclamation communicated to employers and the public the urgency of nursing home workers’ demands for safety and a living wage. The union has used it successfully as a template for contract improvements.
A long history together
King has often called the 1199 “my favorite union”. The poverty-paid health workers who first organized themselves in New York City inspired King as much as he was – and still is – to them. After her death, Coretta Scott King chaired Union 1199’s national organizing campaign. She was soon on the streets of Charleston, South Carolina in 1969 with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, helping an 1199 organizing campaign in two local hospitals.
At the center of the struggle today are certified nursing assistants, mostly women of color, many of whom are immigrants from Jamaica and Haiti. They find that going on strike is a crucial decision. This means exchanging a paycheck for picket line salary, which is a fraction of their salary. There are other difficulties as well: Employers are not required to contribute to workers’ health and welfare benefits when workers leave the job.
“No one is listening until we threaten to hit”
For workers, the most painful aspect of a strike is the well-being of the patients they leave behind. “Nobody listens to us unless we threaten to hit,” Bailey explained. “We give loving care, but we don’t get any love from the boss. Truly our patients and their families are our biggest supporters. They know how hard we work and how much we care about ourselves. Often times, we are the only outer faces they see.
Unionized workers rely on the fact that whenever District 1199 sends a required strike notice, the Connecticut Department of Public Health orders nursing homes to submit a comprehensive patient care plan, including hiring temporary replacements.
Connecticut nursing home workers are no strangers to strikes, which they have been using since 1969 for pay increases, education and training programs, and a pension fund. Withholding one’s job and refusing to cooperate with the authorities has become an essential part of their organizational strategy. Somehow, members of District 1199 experienced this practice, with drop-in visits from the boss, information picket lines, and other tactics held inside the homes of medical care.
From February to May, the union increased the pressure as the end of the strike approached. They blocked roads, sat at intersections, and occupied state office buildings in cities across the state, resulting in numerous arrests.
Before embarking on their campaign of civil disobedience, nursing home workers participated in non-violence workshops, which was not easy to do while maintaining social distancing. The training focused on personal responses to violence, self-care and the legal process.
Participants also discussed the historic role that direct action has played in the movements for abolition, suffrage, labor, civil rights and peace. “We have realized that we are not alone, we are part of a long tradition,” said one participant.
With the nursing home victory achieved, District 1199 will now focus on securing new contracts for other members, including developmental residential care workers and employees of the State specializes in a wide range of public health services. By applying the lessons they learned from previous campaigns, organizers believe they can achieve similar progress for all essential workers.