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Hundreds Of Nursing Home Strikers Offer To Return, But Company Takes Only Nine

Mara Lee

September 09, 2010

After four-and-a-half months of picketing, and negotiations that moved further apart since the strike began, almost 400 Spectrum Healthcare nursing home workers offered to return to work unconditionally but the company will not take all of them back.

The company's response: The replacement workers that were hired will get to keep their jobs, so union workers can come back only as openings occur. Just nine strikers returned to work this week at three of the company's four nursing homes in Hartford, Ansonia, Derby and Winsted.

Whether Connecticut's first nursing home strike in seven years was a loss for the union or for the company will be determined many months or even years from now, when the National Labor Relations Board determines why the strike began.

That's because it's legal to refuse to let most strikers return to work, taking them back only as turnover permits, if the strike was motivated by money. But if it is found that the strike was precipitated by an employer's intimidating union members or retaliating against them, all the workers must be taken back immediately when they offer to end the strike.

Sean Murphy, chief financial officer of Spectrum Healthcare, said he's sure the NLRB will rule that union members walked out for better pay.

Service Employees International Union District 1199 President "Carmen [Boudier] was certainly quoted at the beginning of the strike that the reason they were on strike was to get a raise and get what 32 other homes had agreed to, and if that had happened, there would not have been a strike," he said.

He believes the union made a mistake by walking out. "We were very upfront with the union at the outset that we would hire permanent replacements. And our preference was to continue negotiating," he said.

But the union portrays the offer and even the fact that most strikers remain on unemployment as setting up an ultimate victory.

"The balance of power has shifted," said Deborah Chernoff, SEIU District 1199 spokeswoman. "What they're saying on the picket line is we're going to be replacing our replacements."

The first ruling from the NLRB found that the company should not have unilaterally imposed a lateness policy, and that suspending some workers under the new rule was also breaking labor law. It also said that some firings could have been retaliation against union activists.

But that ruling is similar to an indictment, and Spectrum has a chance to present its side Nov. 2.

The union has been through this before. Eleven years ago, Avery Heights nursing home hired permanent replacements, and it took more than two years for all the strikers to be called back as jobs opened up.

After 10 years of court battles, the union won the argument that Avery Heights broke the law by not giving the workers their jobs back as soon as they offered to end the strike. The strikers collected about $2 million in back pay. Chernoff said the resolution will be quicker this time.

And she said that for SEIU to win the case, the judge does not have to decide that there was no economic motivation, only that the company's disciplinary actions could be reasonably seen as an effort to break the union.

"This is the best way of guaranteeing people get justice," she said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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