How Underpaid, Underappreciated Workers Won 56-Day Nursing Home Strike

When health care workers employed by Cartie's Health Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island, struck July 1, no one, least of all the workers themselves, imagined that they were embarking on the longest nursing home strike in state history.

Indeed, only the most recklessly optimistic outside observer would have predicted any gains at all, much less the total victory that was to come 56 days later.

There was no reason for optimism. Management was demanding a 7.5% pay cut and concessions on medical insurance, vacation, sick time, and holidays. The underpaid, underappreciated, less-skilled work done in nursing homes was performed here by a wildly diverse workforce whose linguistic, cultural, ethnic, and religious differences begged to be exploited by an employer clearly intent on breaking the union.

Already forced to be prepared for an anti-union publicity campaign that would paint them all as extortionists putting patients at risk, and with aggressive picket line activities largely unavailable to them as health care providers -- Who would want their beloved relatives to be under the care of "union thugs"? -- what leverage did Cartie's workers have?

The only obvious advantage was New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199, which has become well known for its powerful defense of members' interests and rights.

As the contract expiration neared, District 1199 provided 12 days' strike notice--two more than required. Cartie's provided the Department of Health with only about two days' notice, forcing it to remove patients in a way characterized by District 1199 organizer Pam Chandran as "... dangerous, humiliating, and subhuman." "That galvanized everyone," she said, "because they truly cared about their patients," and it won round one of the publicity war for the union.

NLRB DECISION

With an overwhelming majority of the 185 workers honoring the picket line, the strike became a waiting game. All of the strikers described a process of becoming, in effect, a family, and this was clearly seen in the sense of shared responsibility shown towards the children often on the picket line.

"Just getting to know one another built our faith and our strength," said Ed Silvia, a Certified Nurse Assistant who served on the negotiating team.

That faith was soon tested when the NLRB, deciding a unit clarification issue pushed by Cartie's, ruled that 35 RNs and LPNs were supervisors and thus ineligible to belong to the bargaining unit. The union appealed, but it was obvious that RNs and LPNs would soon be ordered to return to work, and if the ruling stood, those who refused to cross the picket line would be fired.

It was also obvious that if a significant number of RNs and LPNs crossed, it would be a stake through the union's heart. But in the end, only four LPNs crossed the line.

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"The solidarity of service workers in support of the RNs and LPNs was the biggest victory of the strike," said Cheryl Vazina, a District 1199 organizer. "The support given after the [NLRB] decision was overwhelming. It would have been easy for the service workers to settle without the skilled workers."

"What impressed me most was the way they never lost their composure, never lost the sisterhood they had," said Artie Kurtz of the Flint Glass Workers, who was a regular solidarity picketer. "Ethnicity, language barriers, none of that was a drawback to them."

'EVERY DAY'

Chief union negotiator Patrick Quinn said nothing special was done to build that solidarity. "You can't just wake up one day and decide to be inclusive," he said. "You have to live it every day."

Although Cape Verdean creole, Portuguese, and Spanish are spoken as often as English at Cartie's, "the language of the union speaks for itself," said Vezina. "That's what it's all about -- making sure everyone is treated equally."

Quinn said the turning points came when the state ruled that workers could collect unemployment, and when another state agency fined Cartie’s $10,000 for its notification failure and subsequent failure to properly ensure care of the patients.

On August 25, Cartie's workers ratified, 82-7, a settlement which beat back the wage cuts. It froze wages for the first year and raised them by at least two percent in each of the second and third years. The contract rejected vacation and sick time concessions, won a 401K plan with an employer contribution, allowed the registered and practical nurses to remain in the union, and required the discharge of replacement workers.

By the time it was over, the overwhelmingly female workforce that so many outsiders had written off early and whose resolve Cartie's management had grossly underestimated had stayed out longer than the United Auto Workers who struck General Motors this summer.

The transformative power of that kind of fortitude becomes visible in many ways. Pam Dromey, a CNA who served on the negotiating committee and was recently elected a union delegate, noted that, "I even got stronger in my life... This made me strong all around."

Organizer Pam Chandran hopes this lesson isn't lost on workers. "We're constantly told people can't fight the system, and here in the tiniest community in the tiniest state, it was done. This is so simple. Why doesn't everyone do this?"

Andrew Slipp is secretary of American Flint Glass Workers Union Local 1007.