|Top photo, Berlin workers,
families and union and community supporters at a fundraising dinner in March,
hosted by U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders. Funds raised established the Berlin
Workers’ Defense Fund. Below, Laurie Gomo, UE Local 254 chief steward and a
Licensed Nurse’s Aide, testifies at a public hearing. Listening, from left
are State Rep. Tom Koch, U.S. Rep. Sanders, and State Sen. Janet Munt.
"This is the bottom line of our struggle: We want one of
these multinational, for-profit nursing homes to wake up to the fact that we
insist our residents receive the care they deserve," says Kathy
Purcell, a licensed nurse’s aide at Berlin Health & Rehabilitation.
Kathy is one of the 120 women and men who made history last
August by becoming the first unionized nursing-home workforce in Vermont. The
Berlin workers organized around issues of resident care, poverty wages, short
staffing, and a general lack of respect. Together they are new UE Local 254.
The Berlin workers have been fighting hard since last summer
to get their issues addressed in their first union contract. Their opponents
in this struggle are formidable: the nursing home is one of a chain owned by
the multinational corporation, CPL/REIT, based in Ontario. CPL is the largest
private owner/operator of nursing homes in Canada and in recent years has been
aggressively expanding into the U.S. Berlin is also the first U.S. facility
owned by CPL to go union. (Ninety-five percent of CPL’s Canadian facilities
During the organizing campaign the company hired the notorious
anti-worker law firm Jackson Lewis to fight the union. The same lawyers have
been retained as CPL attempts to frustrate workers’ hopes for a first
On the workers’ side, however, are a host of impressive
allies and supporters. Much of the community-based support has been possible
because of the hard work of the Vermont Workers Center in central Vermont.
This non-profit organization has spent countless hours organizing and
developing an extraordinary campaign on behalf of the Berlin workers.
"We see this struggle as central to the overall struggle
of workers in Vermont," said James Haslam, director of the Workers
Center. "CPL and Jackson Lewis are orchestrating an anti-union campaign
that is an affront to all working Vermonters. Our organization, the Vermont
labor community and other organizations are stepping up to support these
workers in their quest for fair treatment and better care for residents."
With the help of the Workers Center, Local 254 has held press
conferences, rallies, informational picket lines, public hearings, candlelight
vigils, and other activities.
In mid-March, more than 100 people attended a public hearing
hosted by the Workers Center, Congressman Bernie Sanders and two state
legislators in the state’s capital. During the hearing Sanders, State Sen. Janet
Munt and State Rep. Tom Koch heard from workers, advocates for
elderly, and others about the state of Vermont’s nursing homes in general
and about Berlin in particular. After the hearing, Sanders said he was moved
by the workers’ commitment to continue to provide care to the state’s
elderly in spite of poor pay, benefits and working conditions.
As many as 20 Berlin employees attended and testified about
their work lives at the hearing, which was taped by a public access television
station and still runs occasionally throughout the state.
In their testimony, workers spoke extensively about the
effects of short-staffing. Workers testified that short-staffing means that
residents cannot be turned often enough to prevent bed sores. Short-staffing
means that residents sometimes go weeks without receiving a tub bath or shower
or that they receive their meals when they are no longer warm. Short-staffing
also means high rates of on-the-job injuries for aides who must lift and move
One employee who suffered an on-the-job injury and, as a
result, was forced to work fewer hours on light duty, recently received a bill
instead of a pay check. This employee takes the company’s expensive health
insurance plan and her portion of the premium was more than her part-time
wages. Short-staffing also means low morale and high stress, but it also means
larger profits for CPL.
"Sometimes when I go work, I’m the only aide assigned
to my wing. That means, there is really only me to provide care for up to
fifty-two residents. No one can provide the kind of care our elderly need with
this kind of staffing," says Laurie Gomo, a third shift Licensed
Nurses Aide at Berlin. "Short staffing hurts staff and residents
Laurie testified at the hearing that it hurts not to be able
to sit with a resident who is dying or to rub a sleepless resident’s back.
Kitchen employees described poverty wages. When Vermont raised
its minimum wage to $6.25 an hour last January, most kitchen employees had to
be given raises to meet the new state minimum. One 15-year employee still does
not make $7 an hour. Barre resident Donna Weston is typical of kitchen
employees. She has worked the facility for five years, earns $6.82 and cannot
afford to take the company’s health insurance. "I have to pay my bills
myself until they’re paid or they go to a collection agency," Donna
A few days after the hearing, the Vermont Workers Center,
Bernie Sanders and the Washington and Orange County Central Labor Council
sponsored a community fund-raising dinner. The hundreds of dollars collected
at this dinner became the basis of the Berlin Workers Defense Fund. Funds
raised are earmarked to help employees should they decide to go on strike and
to fund other contract-related events.
TALKING TRUTH IN TORONTO
Some of the money from this fund was used by two Berlin
workers to travel to Toronto, Canada in late May to attend CPL’s annual
stockholders’ meeting. Outside the meeting, the workers passed out leaflets
to the stockholders — and spoke directly to the corporation’s Chief
Operating Officer. The workers told the top executive that U.S. workers
deserve the same working conditions as Canadian workers. The union contracts
covering the 95 percent of the firm’s Canadian nursing homes all contain
union shop provisions.
Following up on the meeting, the local has asked union members
and community supporters to email Barry Reichmann (the CEO of CPL) and
to send Reichmann a post card encouraging him to do the right thing by Berlin
workers. (Please see the UE’s web page to see how you can email Barry
Reichmann) Local 254 has gotten pledges from several Canadian unions,
including the CAW, to deliver hundreds of postcards to CPL within the next few
UE members have also supported the new local’s struggle by
signing post cards, donating funds to the Defense Fund and walking
informational picket lines around the state.
SPREADING THE WORD
As part of an effort to spread the word about the company’s
practices, the local has been walking informational picket lines in various
communities where CPL owns nursing homes. To date, informational pickets have
taken place in Burlington, St. Johnsbury, Springfield and Barre Vermont. UE
Local 218 members staffed the Springfield picket line and UE Locals 267 and
221 members walked the Burlington picket line.
While all these efforts have made the Berlin contract fight
the most publicized and watched struggle in the state, the company has still
not moved off its insistence on a weak union contract. UE Local 254 members
are seeking to substantially raise the salaries of the nursing home workers,
to form a joint committee with the company to study staffing needs, to keep
"hard time pay" in their benefit package and to win a union-secure
shop. Hard time pay is a bonus paid to aides when they must work extremely
short staffed. The nursing home is insisting that workers give up their
"hard time pay," that senior workers receive the smallest wage
increases and that the local accept an open shop. The company wants the open
shop because it wants the local organization to be as weak as possible.
Workers fear that the company’s insistence that they give up hard time pay
means the company is not really interested in addressing short staffing
In addition to refusing to bargain a fair contract, the
company is engaging in numerous violations of federal labor law. To date, the
union has charged the company with 27 violations of law, and the company is
being investigated by the National Labor Relations Board. The union expects
the NLRB to issue a complaint within the next few weeks.
Berlin workers are determined to prevail in this struggle, and
the local is working with the Workers Center, the Vermont labor community and
other organizations to push ahead in its campaign for a fair contract. Among
other tactics, the local is planning to distribute yard signs all over central
Vermont. Similar to political candidate signs, these signs will be placed in
front yards and will highlight the local’s demand for the nursing home to
fix short-staffing and to stop paying poverty wages; the signs will also point
out that Berlin does not respect the law.
The local also has plans to involve more state politicians,
regulatory bodies and others in its campaign to win better working conditions.
Workers inside the nursing home have not lost their resolve.
Local 254 members are determined to keep fighting until they become not just
the first unionized nursing home, but also the first nursing home with a
decent union contract. Negotiating Committee member Kathy Purcell said,
"We are and always will be here for our residents and our struggle will
continue until their needs are met."