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Unions Face Hard Choices

By Mara Lee

December 18, 2011

It was a hard week for unions. Thousands of service workers in areas as different as a nursing home, a call center and janitorial staffers in office buildings either learned they were losing their jobs or faced the rock-and-a-hard-place choice of accepting concessions or the potential of going without a paycheck for months.

The janitors, members of SEIU Local 32BJ, took the initiative, giving authority to their bargaining representatives to declare a strike if the upcoming contract with cleaning firms doesn't come to an acceptable compromise on wages and benefits. That kind of strike vote is typical when the two sides are far apart.

But at AT&T, where the company announced 100 job cuts, and at HealthBridge Management, which locked out 100 nursing home workers in Milford, employees are on the defensive after the corporations' cost-cutting moves.

And in the industrial sector, workers at Colt's Manufacturing Co. gathered for a grim meeting after the historic gunmaker warned the United Auto Workers union to expect layoffs at the West Hartford plant early in 2012 -- following Colt's announcement Dec. 1 that it would build a plant in Kissimmee, Fla.

Together, this unusual cluster of management-labor strife points to the intense pressure that a slow economy brings to organized workers.

The showdown between HealthBridge and the Service Employees International Union was the most dramatic development. On Tuesday, workers who arrived for the 7 a.m. shift at West River Health Care Center in Milford were turned away, as the company said it was refusing to let them work to "encourage" them to accept the company's latest contract offer.

The company used the word "encourage," but to the nursing aides who have been with the company for years, it's a little stronger.

"They're trying to force us to do that," said Wendy Russell, a certified nursing assistant at West River for the last four years. She works 32 hours a week at the home, and her 22-year-old daughter is also a nursing aide there.

The lockout followed 10 months without a contract between HealthBridge, a New Jersey company that runs six unionized Connecticut nursing homes, and the 800 members of SEIU District 1199 who work at the homes. Workers at the five other homes, including the Newington Health Care Center and Wethersfield Health Care Center, remain at work, though the company is threatening to lock them out as well.

Jonathan Cutler, a Wesleyan University sociology professor who studies labor, said the union was stalling through this year because it was not willing to accept a contract with so many concessions, from ending the pension to losing vacation days and holidays to health insurance premiums of $7,000 a year for a family plan.

By instituting a lockout, Cutler said, "The employer is saying, 'You're not understanding how aggressive we're willing to be.' "

Michelle Barricko has worked at West River for 19 years, including several years before SEIU District 1199 organized certified nursing assistants, housekeeping and culinary staff. Back then, they had to pay $35 a week for insurance, and she wouldn't mind contributing that much, but not the nearly $600 a month the company is demanding.

It's not clear if she would even be allowed to have health insurance under the new contract, because she works 32 hours a week, the minimum for family coverage, and the company's offer would classify her eight-hour shifts as 7.5-hour shifts.

As cars honked in support of the roughly 25 workers clustered on the sidewalk in front of the home Friday afternoon, Barricko said she was shocked by the lockout. "I didn't really think they would be that cruel to lock us out before Christmas," she said.

Cutler said that although the tactic could pay off for the company if union members at the other five homes are scared enough to accept major concessions, there's still a risk.

"There's a good case to be made that they're trying to break the union," he said, by starting a lockout when their offer is so much less generous than the current contract.

SEIU has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that the lockout is part of the company's strategy of refusing to bargain in good faith, and is against the law. The company has filed a complaint with the federal agency saying picketing in Milford is illegal, and should be stopped.

"It's hard to break a union without looking like you're breaking the union. The labor law tends to look down on attempts to bust the union," Cutler said.

HealthBridge says it is not trying to break the union, but that it's unfair for the company to have to "pay for benefit programs that are out of touch with today's health care economy."

If the NLRB and federal judges agree with the union's charges, the company could be liable for back pay for the union workers, as well as for all the costs it's now paying for replacement workers and security guards.

At AT&T, 100 of 301 operators who either take calls from cellphone users or do contract work for Yale-New Haven Hospital will be terminated. If enough of the workers -- mostly women -- ask for the union-negotiated severance package, there will be no layoffs, but either way, a third of the staff will be gone in January.

There's no evidence that the impending layoff is an intimidation tactic against the Communications Workers of America. In fact, the volume of calls to operators has dropped by half in the last three years. But CWA officers said at least one other company, T-Mobile, is using the AT&T job cuts to its advantage in opposing a union drive.

CWA last summer signed up 16 technicians at T-Mobile, even after the company tried to convince them to vote no. Bill Henderson, president of CWA Local 1298, said the pressure was so intense that men were going outside and throwing up.

Union Vice President Rich Benham said T-Mobile is using this week's layoff as an argument for other technicians who will be voting on unionizing in New York. "Even a union can't save their jobs," Benham said the company was telling the technicians.

"You have to realize the forces in play here, and they're all stacked against the worker," said Henderson, whose local represents 3,200 AT&T workers in Connecticut. "Big business feels emboldened by this bad economy."

"AT&T is proud of its longstanding cooperative relationship with our unions," company spokesman Marty Richter said. He said the company provides "high-quality middle class jobs with highly competitive wages and benefits that are among the best in America and significantly greater than those of our competitors."

During negotiations this summer, AT&T tried to get the union to accept a tiered wage system so the current operators could keep their nearly $19 an hour wages, but new hires would come in at $8.25 an hour and after five years, could reach only $10 an hour.

Henderson said the company negotiators urged them to go on strike if they didn't like it, because if they strike, did, "you'll have a line of people all the way to Hartford" willing to replace them.

"At no time did we encourage the union to go on strike," Richter said. "Our objective in the negotiations was, as always, to reach a fair agreement that would allow us to continue to provide good union jobs with good wages and benefits, while enabling AT&T to compete in an extremely competitive industry."

Cutler said this sort of labor-management tension is typical at this stage in a jobless recovery. He said when the economy is free-falling, businesses are too busy trying to manage the crisis to act. But when profits begin to return as hiring lags and unemployment remains high, they feel they have the upper hand.

"These kind of struggles in this moment," Cutler said, raise a question: "whether we're going to grow together here, or whether the growth is going to be all at the expense of labor."

Cutler said the surprising popularity of the Occupy Wall Street protests shows that messages about unfairness in the economy are resonating beyond a small group of union activists or people on the political left.

If a wide group of people decide employers are being overly aggressive in trying to take advantage of workers, it could not only create a backlash against individual companies, but also depress consumer spending, further prolonging the sluggish recovery, he said.

It wasn't just people driving by who were siding with the locked out workers in Milford. A resident in a wheelchair came out the front door and yelled to the workers and blew them kisses. "We miss you, too, Minnie!" workers cried.

Cutler said manufacturing unions like the UAW at Colt's have not had effective responses to capital fleeing unionized states, and that's been happening for decades. What's noteworthy, he said, was the pressure on service workers, where all the growth in union membership has been.

"The level of anti-union activity is a measure of the achievements of recent years," he 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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