After close to three years of negotiations, stickers and leaflets weren't getting the boss any closer to a fair agreement. The master contract covering 10,000 nursing home workers in Illinois had been expired for two years and extended several times.
Management was insisting on a wage freeze until Illinois overcame its budget impasse and increased Medicaid reimbursements. Long-term workers were languishing at minimum wage, even when their employers had begun offering higher wages to entice new hires.
Meanwhile, staffing was dangerously short. Often a certified nursing assistant was forced to care for 20 or more residents in an eight-hour shift -- bathing, feeding, and assisting them at a furious pace. On top of keeping the nursing home clean, a housekeeper had to collect meal trays for hundreds of residents because there weren't enough dietary aides.
To win a new agreement, it was clear that workers would need to be prepared to strike.
But their local, Service Employees (SEIU) Healthcare Illinois-Indiana (HCII), hadn't ever waged a strike over its master nursing home contract. In fact, the last time there was a nursing home strike at any of these facilities was in 1979. The local's previous contract campaigns had been lackluster. Mobilization had been limited to stickers, petitions, and a practice picket.
And giving each nursing home the organizing attention it needed now was a huge challenge. The bargaining unit covers 28 different employers and 103 facilities statewide.
"Before this contract, workers didn't get bargaining news, and information wasn't passed around," said 10-year certified nursing assistant Marilu Garcia, a first-time member of the bargaining committee. "But this time we shared all the information about every meeting and everything we talked about. Even though they were scared, they wanted to know why there wasn't a raise for three years."
Expanding the Team
The local began to get ready for the largest nursing-home worker strike in US history.
First, the bargaining committee from two years of stalled negotiations had to get bigger. Stewards and other members gathered for the union's annual leadership assembly, where they kicked off a petition drive: to join the bargaining committee, you needed to get at least 25 co-workers' signatures of support. This process expanded the committee to 85 members, including one representative from each large home with 90 workers or more.
The union made clear that all negotiations would be open. Any member could sit in as an observer and participate in the discussions during the caucuses between sessions. The new bargaining committee agreed to five core demands:
- Raise wages well above the minimum wage (set to go up to $13 an hour in 2019 in Chicago) regardless of where in Illinois you live
- End the practice of paying some new hires more than workers with seniority
- Provide new protections for immigrant workers, such as banning the use of E-Verify and allowing time to renew work authorization and update your information when your status changes
- Unfreeze pension contributions, so people can retire with dignity
- Hold management accountable to staffing requirements set by state law
"It was unity that defined this campaign," said Larry Alcoff, the union's lead negotiator. The employers tried to divide workers by race, immigration status, and even by geography, since Chicago's minimum wage is set to rise to $13 an hour by 2019 while the statewide minimum is just $8.25. But when one employer used E-Verify to fire 23 employees during the campaign, their non-immigrant co-workers were quick to rise to their defense. "The workers understood that standards would be lifted only through unity across all these divides," Alcoff said.
"Sick and Tired"
To make the campaign possible, over four months the union brought in 60 full-time organizers, including member interns, staffers from other SEIU locals, and staffers borrowed from other assignments within the local. Two members of the Labor Notes staff joined the campaign as well (I was one of them).
Despite their complaints about the state budget impasse, union research revealed that the employers in the association had brought in $1.1 billion in revenue in 2015 -- and that much of it was paid out to the owners themselves through the complex web of management, real estate, pharmaceutical, and supply companies they owned, along with the actual nursing homes. We knew the employers had the money to meet our demands.
To measure members' readiness to strike, we set up a number of tests. The first was a practice picket on April 7 at 11 nursing homes representing the largest employers. A thousand workers from these homes picketed, joined by workers from other homes and another 150 community allies including teachers, aldermen, pastors, and rabbis. Workers were emboldened by the picket and the positive news coverage.
But the owners still wouldn't budge at the bargaining table. So our next step was to schedule a strike vote in 60 of the 103 homes, chosen because they were the biggest and hit all 28 different owners. Workers adopted the slogan of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer -- "We're sick and tired of being sick and tired" -- on stickers and leaflets to help motivate them as they moved into the unfamiliar territory of a strike.
In a vote conducted online and in person, 58 homes reached the 60 percent threshold to approve a strike. The plan was to initiate four waves of strikes: the first group going out on May 4, the next group joining them on May 5, and so on. By the fourth day, 5,000 workers would be on an open-ended strike -- the largest nursing home strike in US history.
Down to the Wire
On the final day of bargaining, April 27 -- just a week before the planned strike -- the owners barely moved. It was clear they weren't taking the threat seriously; most had not lined up agency workers to replace the strikers. Instead, some were pressuring workers to pledge to work during the strike, and threatening them with being fired if they struck.
To prove that the union was serious, workers stepped up their game. Activists off the clock, together with staff organizers, spent long hours every day talking with their co-workers, stickering people up with the message "Ready to Strike" (and in Spanish, "Listo para ir a la huelga"), and marching on their bosses in individual nursing homes. The union filed 160 unfair labor practice charges. Hundreds of workers attended picket captain trainings.
By May 2, the employer got the message and rushed back to the table for a last-ditch effort to avoid a strike. But by the end of the day, one of the union's key demands was still unresolved. Workers were holding out for a wage scale with steps from hire to five years that would ensure wages above the legal minimum and end the practice of new hires making more than senior workers.
So strike preparations kept ramping up. Workers made picket signs in break rooms and signed up for strike duty. Picket captains recruited workers for strike committees in each nursing home to handle food, transportation, marshaling, leafleting, and media. Workers organized family activities for the strike, such as bringing sidewalk chalk and boomboxes. The union made massive purchases of food and water to fuel strikers and allies on the line.
Bargaining resumed the afternoon of May 3, but workers got the word through mass text messages and conference calls in English and Spanish that the strike was still on. In bargaining committee member Cameisha Shepherd's workplace, when the nursing home owner came in to do an open house for new hires, he found his employees all stickered up with strike slogans. "We are the heartbeat of the building," Shepherd says.
As the hours ticked by, management began to give. "It was maybe five hours before the strike was to begin that we got to a settlement," said certified nursing assistant Francine Rico, a member of the union's executive board. "Finally we're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel."
Bosses Had to Bend
Workers won their wage scale, putting all nursing home workers well above minimum wage. Over the three-year contract, workers will get an average raise of $3 an hour, and many who are at minimum wage will get much more.
The union also won new staffing language that shifts the burden to management -- when workers are short-staffed, they will no longer be held responsible for accomplishing an impossibly long list of duties -- along with additional protections for immigrant members and a 40 percent increase in contributions to the pension.
"The bosses had to bend all the way down because they had no choice," said Shepherd. And her co-workers were changed by the campaign, too. After the experience of taking actions like wearing stickers and learning they could not be disciplined for it, "people are less afraid of management," she said. "We are ready to police our contract, especially staffing levels."
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