On the picket line
September 3, 2004 | Pages 10 and 11
Group Health Cooperative
SEATTLE--Some 1,200 workers ended their five-day strike at HMO Group Health Cooperative on August 27. Licensed practical nurses (LPNs), medical assistants, social workers, janitors and other workers organized under Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199NW have been negotiating for a new contract for a year and a half since their last contract expired.
The central issue is health care costs. Currently, SEIU members pay no premiums and $5 co-pays for visits and prescriptions. Group Health wants employees to pay 11 to 12 percent of staff health care costs, with SEIU members paying 2 percent of their salary for individual coverage and 3 percent for dependent coverage.
"I think the leadership of the union is out of touch with the reality that this kind of fair contribution is commonplace," said CEO Scott Armstrong. Group Health officials point to the rising costs of health care as the reason for the "fair" increase in employee contribution.
Meanwhile, Group Health--the nation's second largest health insurance "cooperative"--raked in more than $187 million in profits in 2003. Karen, a registered nurse with Group Health for 15 years, explained why she was on strike. "We are trying to make a statement about health care in this country--particularly for people who work for a health care company! Far too many in the U.S. have no health care.
"My daughter has a temporary job at GH. She has no health care coverage. Her daughter has health problems and no health care coverage from her employer, a health care company! Why is GH doing this? Not because they need to! They made a 10 percent profit last year. They are doing it because they can. They are trying to bust the union. They are making us wait longer and longer to settle contracts."
Workers picketed 20 locations in the Puget Sound, including the corporate headquarters in downtown Seattle. About 500 workers of the 1,700 represented by SEIU crossed the picket lines, and patient care was continued with Group Health workers from eastern Washington and scabs.
The five-day strike ended with a 1,000-strong rally on August 27, followed by a loud and spirited march to Group Health headquarters. During the strike, Group Health still refused to negotiate with the union. More rallies and the threat of an open-ended strike will be necessary to hit Group Health where it hurts and to win.
United Workers of the North
OWATONNA, Minn.--The United Workers of the North (UTN), a union representing seasonal workers in Minnesota, is battling Lakeside Foods Inc. for union recognition, affordable health care, decent living conditions and fair wages. Lakeside sends recruiters to Texas and Mexico to bring seasonal workers to Minnesota with promises of work.
Upon arrival, workers are forced to live in a place they call "Grass Camp," living five to six workers per house, with substandard plumbing, sanitation and utilities. According to the UTN, workers are promised 35 hours per week, but routinely get less than 20.
Lakeside offers health care, but most workers' can't afford it. "Just last week, a woman gave birth and was forced back to work only three days after delivery," said one worker.
Lakeside has used intimidation tactics to discourage workers from joining the UTN, sending letters to their homes and warning them on the job. UTN activist Jose Corpus explains that the union is "a necessity. They have no rights, under the law or in their workplace, no one to defend them."
The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents full-time plant workers, has pledged support for the UTN. Solidarity between full-time and part-time workers will be crucial to winning better working conditions for both.