High stakes for the Kingsbridge strikers

May 23, 2008

MORE THAN 80 days on strike, and no end in sight. Workers at the Kingsbridge Heights Rehabilitation Center in the Bronx have been on strike since February 20, when their employer stopped paying into their health care benefits.

The working conditions were never great. The largely immigrant workforce was subjected to many abuses, but it was a decent job and provided health care coverage for the workers and their families. Health care is something that is hard to come by in this country. Forty-seven million Americans go without health care each year. Many more are inadequately covered.

The Kingsbridge strikers know what's at stake. They are more than aware that if they lose this struggle, it will set a precedent in other nursing homes in New York City, and possibly around the country, that unions can be broken.

The stakes are certainly high. Audrey Smith Campbell worked at the nursing home for 30 years. She passed away after 82 days on strike. She suffered from asthma and had a difficult time paying for her medication in the months since the strike began. What a way to repay 30 years of service!

March in support of SEIU1199 members on strike at the Kingsbridge Heights Nursing Home, May 2008
Marching in support of SEIU1199 members on strike at the Kingsbridge Heights Nursing Home

Helen Sieger, the owner of the Kingsbridge Heights Rehabilitation Center, should be more than ashamed of herself, but I'm sure she does not give a thought to the plight of Audrey Smith Campbell or the other 200-plus workers that are fighting for their right to health care and dignity.

Sieger's nursing home is one of the most profitable in New York City--she made $5 million last year. As one worker put it, "Helen doesn't know what it's like to have to chose between feeding your family and paying the rent. She doesn't understand what it's like to have to give up health care to pay the electricity bill."

Sieger obviously doesn't care for the patients stuck in her nursing home either. Most of the profit she makes is from Medicare and Medicaid patients, people who have very little choice in where they are taken when they become too disabled to care for themselves.

On a recent visit to the picket line, a worker explained that the patients are no longer able go outside--Sieger had the patio garden demolished to make way for a parking lot, which is empty and not used. Not only are workers deprived of health care, but the patients they serve are deprived of the basic human right to fresh air.

It would be easy to just blame Helen Sieger for her greediness and heartlessness, but this problem is systemic. Certainly, Sieger is a disgusting individual, but we live in under a system that protects people like her, while workers pay with their lives.

The NYPD is deployed daily to "protect" Sieger's property from the strikers, but who will "protect" workers from the likes of Helen Sieger?
Dawning Greenstreet, New York City

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