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Nursing Home Workers
As First
Contract Struggle Continues

Berlin Rehab workers, members of UE Local 254, spread their message ...    


Berlin workers, their families and union and community supporters ...
Top photo, Berlin workers, their 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.
Laurie Gomo, UE Local 254 chief steward and a Licensed Nurse’s Aide, testifies at a public hearing.

"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 are unionized.)

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 contract.


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 residents.

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 alike."

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 said recently.

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.


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 weeks.

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.


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 problems.

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."

UE News - 06/01

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