The Canadian-based nursing home chain CPL/REIT operated non-union in the United States and had no intention of changing. When a UE organizing campaign got underway at Berlin Health and Rehabilitation, a nursing home outside of Montpelier, Vt., the company brought in two unionbusting firms to discourage, divide, confuse and intimidate workers.
At the nursing home’s on-site day-care center, one unionbuster befriended the young son of licensed nurses aide Crystal Breer to send a message to the mother. Kitchen worker Debbie Corsney was reduced to tears by her boss’s badgering. But high-priced dirty tricks and old-fashioned intimidation failed to budge Berlin workers. On Aug. 10 they became the first nursing home workers in Vermont and the first U.S. workers in the CPL/REIT chain to successfully organize.
Both women stood before delegates to the 65th UE Convention, beaming, and received the charter for new UE Local 254 on behalf of their co-workers.
The 1,600 workers in 11 different bargaining units organized by UE over the past year sent co-workers to Erie to tell their stories of determination and liberation.
The workers from The Electric Materials Co. (TEMCO) in North East, Pa. had the shortest and the longest distance to travel to the Convention — a few miles down the road, through 84 years of non-union operation, a bitter and sharply contested campaign for union recognition, and months of an intense and ongoing battle for a first contract.
WHAT IT TAKES
"What does it take to organize a factory?" Dir. of Org. Bob Kingsley asked. "Courage!" And with that declaration, TEMCO workers marched into the hall. The Local 684 negotiating committee and stewards carried a banner and waved UE flags — to a prolonged standing ovation by delegates. "Local 684 is proud to be part of the union’s history. We want fair treatment in our own shop, and we’re joining with you, for justice in the nation and around the world." said Chief Steward Mike Drakulic. Also speaking were Crystal Pratt, Mark Howard and Ron Lane. Lane was unjustly fired for his part in organizing; the union is fighting for his job.
"It feels good to say, ‘brothers and sisters,’ this is a whole new big family," said Terry Bucknall, Local 1004. Over the years Henry Mayo Hospital in Santa Clarita, Calif. had become much less like "family" than had been the case. Bucknall, an x-ray technician with 19 years’ service, catalogued the many issues — among them takeaways, a wage freeze, lack of seniority and respect, terrible benefits and understaffing — which propelled the nearly 600 Henry Mayo workers to join UE.
When the hospital management circulated a memo asking staff to bring in pens and pencils, Laura Lerma, a respiratory technician, obliged by delivering UE pens. Judy Hice, a computer technician, said that when management attempted to outdo the workers in a leaflet war, it met defeat.
The hospital subcontracted housekeeping, food and linen services, but that didn’t stop those workers from joining UE — although as housekeeper Maribel Guardado explained, workers organized in secret, being made to feel as if they were doing something illegal. Guardado spoke of the bosses’ unrealistic expectations, deliberate understaffing, grossly expensive medical insurance, and demand that the largely immigrant workforce not speak Spanish. "For pay of $6 an hour you want someone to speak English and be a good worker? I don’t think so!" Guardado said to the delegates’ applause.
At GATX Logistics outside Chicago, workers organized and beat the company, the law and gangsters. Damaris Santana, Local 1166, explained how she and her co-workers were fed up with a corrupt, do-nothing union and eagerly responded to UE’s message. GATX workers won their election, despite company pressure, but bureaucratic bungling by the Labor Board forced a second election. The second time around, Santana said, workers knew what to expect from the company’s anti-union campaign; they voted UE by an increased majority.
"The company said, ‘why do you want to be represented by these people, they’re militant. We said back, ‘that’s what we want!’" Santana said. "We’re grateful to be here today, to be UE members."
In North Carolina, statewide, amalgamated Local 150 is meeting new challenges. Although North Carolina is a so-called "right-to-work" state that bans public-sector collective bargaining, Local 150 has gained recognition and dues checkoff, reported Barbara Prear, local president. Beverly Moriarty, Local 150, detailed how staff at Dorothea Dix Hospital have joined UE to gain a voice and fight unfair treatment and deteriorating working conditions. Twenty percent of the staff has joined the union — that’s 250 dues-paying members — since March. Moriarty expressed pride in the strides made by her co-workers despite the desperate conditions, fear and demoralization at the hospital. (For more on UE Local 150, see the organizing section in the UE Officers' Report 2000.)
Joseph Serbantes, Local 783, shared with delegates the proud history of the Progressive Steelworkers union at the Niagara LaSalle steel mill in Hammond, Indiana — and their struggle against a ruthless new owner who boasts of operating non-union mills. After a nine-week strike in 1998, union members were approached by the United Steelworkers union about affiliation. They rejected the offer, because it would have meant loss of membership control. Contact with UE presented an alternative. "We were impressed by the UE structure and ideals," Serbantes said. "That’s exactly how we operated as an independent union. We negotiated our own contracts, and the executive board answers to the membership." Despite intervention by the USWA, the Progressive Steelworkers’ membership voted 83-36 to affiliate with UE.
"I never thought I would be supportive of a union, never mind the president of one," said Lester Koch, Local 112, in recounting the history of his independent union and its affiliation to UE. When Penske Logistics truck drivers and loading dock workers had an AFL-CIO union imposed on them, they didn’t like it too much. Koch and his co-workers fought for two years to get rid of that organization and establish their own union. Joining UE has strengthened their ability to take on the company.
REJECTING UNFAIR TREATMENT
The Grafton County, New Hampshire County Farm consists of
a jail and nursing home — and the employees of both belong to Local
278. Mary Florentine, a corporal at the jail, told delegates,
"we were tired of county taking from us." Workers lost free
meals and their prescription drug plan; their insurance plan was under
threat and there had been no raise in three years. Rose Martell
said the nursing home employees were likewise fed up with the takeaways.
"You’ve shown us we don’t have to lie down and take it."
Bill Lally and Karen Hardin, Local 758, brought greetings from Glastic Plastics workers in Jefferson, Ohio, who are still fighting for their first contract — and winning major grievances on the shop floor in the meantime. "I’m sure with the support you’ve shown, we’ll get a contract from those greedy bastards," Lally said.
In taking on CPL/REIT, Berlin Health workers Breer and Corsney stood up to two unionbusting consultants and arrogant management to win their union. When 20 workers went to the office to demand union recognition, an administrator told them: "You speak when I speak to you." A company vice president, never before seen in Berlin, made an appearance to explain how CPL/REIT couldn’t afford a union. Breer noted his silk socks, Rolex and Jaguar and wondered, "How poor can we be?"
Her supervisor’s threats and intimidation may have reduced Corsney to tears, but, as she proudly told the Convention, she "got back at Buddy" by voting in the union.
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