Kingsbridge Heights Nursing Home

Supporters of striking Kingsbridge Heights Nursing Home workers on the march (Yusef Khalil | SW)Supporters of striking Kingsbridge Heights Nursing Home workers on the march (Yusef Khalil | SW)

NEW YORK--About 5,000 members of 1199SEIU from across the Northeast rallied May 3 to support 220 strikers at the Kingsbridge Heights Nursing Home, whose owner, Helen Sieger, has refused for six years to sign a contract with SEIU or pay into the 1199 health benefits fund.

The overwhelmingly immigrant strikers entered the rally at Fort Independence Park in a boisterous show of force, calling on a broad spectrum of militant national labor traditions. From the West Indian workers came chants like, "Helen! The union is a lion! The lion will devour you!" Polish workers carried signs for Solidarity/Solidarnosc, the Polish labor movement of the 1980s.

Bartosz and Tomas, two strikers from Poland, described Helen Sieger's anti-labor practices: "We have no sick days. We have no health benefits. We are required to arrive at 10:30, but are only paid from 11:00 on. Though we should finish at 7:00, we often have to work later, also without pay."

Sieger met separately with workers according to their nationality to speak against the union--a familiar wedge tactic used against immigrant workers. Unfortunately for the boss, the workers aren't buying it.

Many residents near the nursing home have signs supporting the strike in their windows. The Fort Independence Park Neighborhood Association has devoted its Web site, fipna.org, to supporting and documenting the strike.

A number of federal, state and city politicians and union officials spoke at the rally, including SEIU President Andy Stern and Sen. Charles Schumer. Barack Obama spoke through a recorded message. SEIU members from Albany and Rochester, N.Y., turned out, along with others from Massachusetts, New Jersey and the Washington-Baltimore area.

The rally highlighted the role that immigrants play in organized labor. A win for the Kingsbridge workers will be a victory for both the immigrant rights and labor movements.