Berlin Nursing Home Workers’ First Contract —
Increases Exceed 11%
We could just picture all the bosses and their lawyers sitting around in posh offices laughing about a group of poorly
paid women at a nursing home organizing a union and thinking they could win a decent contract," said newly elected Local 254 Pres. Crystal
Breer. "They thought we’d never win. Boy, were they wrong!"
Breer made her comment at a recent party celebrating the first contract at Berlin Health and Rehabilitation Center. She
and her co-workers had much to celebrate. It took 17 long, hard months, but finally, in late January, Berlin workers — UE Local 254 —
Berlin Health & Rehabilitation is owned by the Canadian company CPL/REIT. CPL owns 20 nursing homes in the U.S., seven
of which are in Vermont. The nursing home workers made history in August 2000 by becoming the first in Vermont, as well as the first CPL
facility in the U.S. to form a union. Their organizing campaign was especially difficult as CPL hired a notorious unionbusting law firm,
Jackson Lewis, to fight the workers’ organizing efforts. When the workers won the representation election, Jackson Lewis then had the
job of fighting the union at the bargaining table.
The company’s plan was clear from the beginning. CPL intended to stall bargaining long enough that workers would become
discouraged and abandon their efforts for a good contract. The company seriously underestimated the resolve of their employees and did not
take into account the enormous community support these workers enjoy.
For more than a year and a half, the Berlin workers fought inside the nursing home and in the street for a decent contract
and a better life for the nursing home’s residents. Workers organized because of poor staffing and poverty wages, and these issues were
at the heart of the community support campaign. Throughout, they had the help of the Vermont Workers Center (a nonprofit workers’ right
center in central Vermont).
Among the activities aimed at the company were public hearings, informational picket lines, rallies, puppet shows,
petitions, lawn signs, email and postcard campaigns, fund-raising events, letters to the newspaper, demands for an increased role of the
state and federal government and more. UE members all over Vermont and Connecticut picketed CPL facilities.
Workers also reached out to their brothers and sisters in Canada. The Canadian Auto Workers and other Canadian unions sent
CPL hundreds of postcards and the CAW took CPL’s management to task during their own negotiations for contracts in Canadian nursing
U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders played a key role in the early stages of the contract campaign. The Congressman hosted a
well-attended public hearing on the plight of nursing home residents and workers in the state. This hearing is still broadcast regularly
around the state on public access television stations. "Human beings are not machines," Sanders told reporters after the
hearing. "When you are asking people to be kind and tender to patients who are in their final days of life, you need to pay them
appropriately. It is very hard for them to do the job they want to do." Bernie also hosted a funding raising dinner which established
the Berlin Workers Defense Fund, allowing the fledgling local to finance many of their actions.
For instance, workers used part of the defense fund to pay for a trip to Toronto, where nurse’s aides attended CPL’s
annual stockholder meeting and took the company to task for paying out large distributions to stockholders while workers and the elderly
suffered in CPL’s homes.
Local 254 members also sustained a lengthy battle to make the state more responsive to workers and residents’
complaints. As a result of the public hearings and other events which focused on the problems caused by short staffing, new staffing
regulations have been adopted by the State of Vermont. For the first time ever — and as a direct result of the public actions taken by
Berlin workers — nursing homes are now required to provide minimum hours of care for residents each day.
Regulations, however, are never enough to make real change. In October a group of state legislators — at the request of
the Berlin workers and the Vermont Workers Center — called for an investigation into the inspection process of CPL-owned nursing homes.
The legislators signed a public letter requesting the Auditor of Accounts to review that state’s regulatory process. "We have heard
concerns from community members, workers in the facilities and/or residents’ families about the care provided in these [CPL-owned]
homes," the letter said. "We believe the seriousness of these concerns sufficient to question the efficacy of the state’s
current oversight process." The letter was signed by six state house members and one state senator.
At a press conference following the delivery of the letter to the Auditor, legislators complained that nursing home bosses
always knew when an inspection was coming and so were able to hide problems from state officials. Michael Obuchowski, a state
representative from Rockingham, said that it appeared state inspections were conducted during the day and that the state might learn more
if it conducted a surprise inspection during the night on a weekend. The Auditor agreed to conduct the investigation and this
investigation is still continuing.
The legislators made their demand for an investigation on a Thursday afternoon in October. The following Sunday night at
around nine o’clock, the Commissioner of the Department of Aging and Disabilities and the Director of the Department of Licensing and
Protection walked into Berlin Health & Rehabilitation to see what was really going on at the home. What they found — too few workers
to properly care for residents — led to a lengthy state inspection and a fine against the nursing home. In an unprecedented move, the
state ordered the facility to stop taking new admissions until it had enough staff to care for the residents it had. As a result, Berlin
was forced to close one wing of its facility and reduce its number of residents by about a third as well. The workers’ claims were
finally substantiated by the state, and CPL was losing profits as well as its reputation.
Throughout the first-contract campaign, the UE had filed numerous charges of unfair labor practice charges against the
company, many of which were substantiated. When the National Labor Relations Board found merit in the union’s claim that Berlin had
bargained in bad faith, CPL finally signaled it was ready to bargain again.
The combination of public pressure, regulatory action and the organization of workers inside the facility finally
convinced the company that it would be in CPL’s interest to end this fight and settle a fair contract. The bargaining session in January
was the first since September. In two days, the parties had an agreement. During the last day of negotiations, the lawyer from Jackson
Lewis told the members that since they now had a contract, it was time "to call the dogs off" and leave the nursing home alone.
The new one-year agreement goes a long way to resolving the issues of poverty pay and short staffing. The average wage
increase for Berlin employees is $1.02 an hour (or 11.8 percent). This raise is retroactive to Jan. 1. In addition to these wage
increases, employees will receive their regular raises, paid on their individual anniversary dates of hire. These increases usually range
from 2 to 3 percent. One 15-year employee saw her hourly wage go from less than $7 an hour to almost $9— an increase of more 27 percent.
More than one third of the bargaining unit received raises of more than 10 percent.
For the first time, Berlin employees have a wage scale that recognizes years of service and substantially raises starting
wages. The local believes that these higher wages should help the nursing home recruit and retain more qualified staff.
Berlin workers also double their sick days, from six to 12. This is an important benefit to the work force, as many of the
workers are women and need adequate paid sick time to take care of sick and injured children. The contract also freezes health insurance
contributions, provides for better bereavement leave, recognizes employees’ seniority and establishes a staffing committee with equal
representation for workers.
FOR IMPROVED CARE
Throughout the organizing and the first contract campaign, workers stressed that a decent union contract would help
improve resident care because residents suffer when there is constant turnover, short staffing and an insensitive management.
"I think I speak for a lot of us when I say that the reason we became nurses’ aides was definitely not for the
money. We didn’t have to take these jobs. We all know there are a lot of better paying jobs with less stress and less emotional
losses," Kathy Purcell, a licensed nurse’s aide and UE Local 254 vice president said recently. "We chose to become
health care workers. We believed that we could make a difference in someone else’s life. That is why our union is so important to us. It
keeps management’s eyes open to what is happening in the home. Without our voices, it’s much easier to pretend that there is nothing
Purcell and others in her local celebrated their victory at a Feb. 15 party. In attendance to receive the workers’
thanks were Lt. Governor Doug Racine (who had publicly offered to mediate a contract resolution)state legislators, a representative
from Bernie Sanders’ office, UE members and others who had helped with this struggle. UE Local 254 combined its victory party with a
fund raiser for the Vermont Workers Center and made the night’s first contribution when the local presented the Center with a $100 check
from its Defense Fund."It was time for us to give something back," said Ken Austin, a cook at the nursing home and the
local’s new chief steward. "The Workers Center did so much for us. Now it’s our turn to help other workers."
UE Local 254 members are proud of their accomplishments. Not only do the workers have a fair first contract they also can
point to new state regulations and a new statewide consciousness about nursing home care that did not exist before. Purcell summed it up
when she recently said, "This was not easy, but our determination and unity brought us victory in the end. In the future the number
of unionized health care workers will continue to grow, and health care will be better for it. We have already been successful. We made
our company aware that they need to hire and retain staff. We have a law now that supports patient to staff ratios. Our elected officials
are taking a more active role in Vermont nursing homes. We have built a strong foundation for the future.
"Health care workers deserve sufficient pay to ensure they remain above poverty level, a working environment where
seniority counts and an atmosphere where workers have the right to speak without fear of reprisal. This is what we have built and for this
we should all be proud. For often it’s not our mind that chooses our profession but our hearts."
The Local 254 negotiating committee consisted of Crystal Breer, Dianna Slayton, Ken Austin, Kathy Purcell and Louise
Sherman. The committee was assisted by Intl. Rep. Kimberly Lawson and on occasion by Field Org. Heather Riemer.
UE News - 3/02