A life and death struggle

Brian Jones tells the story of Kingsbridge striker Audrey Smith-Campbell, a health care provider who literally died fighting for health care.

A VICTORY in the courts might send strikers walking the picket line at the Kingsbridge Heights Rehabilitation and Care Center in the Bronx back to work. Some 220 of them walked off the job in February when their employer stopped paying into their health care fund, effectively leaving them without any health benefits.

Columnist: Brian Jones

Brian Jones Brian Jones is a teacher, actor and activist in New York City. He is featured in the new film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, and his commentary and writing has appeared on MSNBC.com, the Huffington Post, GritTV and the International Socialist Review. Jones has also lent his voice to several audiobooks, including Howard Zinn's one-man play Marx in Soho, Wallace Shawn's Essays and Noam Chomsky's Hopes and Prospects.

But one striker, Audrey Smith-Campbell will never return to work at that nursing home or any other. Audrey Smith-Campbell was a health care provider who literally died fighting for health care.

For 29 years, Smith-Campbell cared for the elderly. As a certified nursing assistant, it was her job to look after the health and welfare of the residents of the nursing home. She was also a staunch defender of her union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199.

And why wouldn't she be? Smith-Campbell was one of the lucky few in America--those who have employer-provided (and union-defended) health care. Smith-Campbell, a grandmother herself, was asthmatic and relied on her health plan to provide roughly $600 worth of medicine and inhalers every month.

So when, in November 2007, she found herself suddenly without health insurance, it was a question of life and death.

March in support of SEIU1199 members on strike at the Kingsbridge Heights Nursing Home, May 2008  (Yusef Khalil | SW)March in support of SEIU1199 members on strike at the Kingsbridge Heights Nursing Home, May 2008 (Yusef Khalil | SW)

Meanwhile, Helen Sieger, the owner of the Kingsbridge Heights nursing home, is infamous for cutting costs at the expense of health and safety. Sieger runs what has been called one of the most profitable nursing homes in the state of New York. It posted over $5 million in profits in 2006. That year, Sieger took home more than half of a million dollars for her trouble. Her main source of revenue? Ironically enough: Medicaid.

Smith-Campbell, and 220 of her coworkers had had enough from Sieger. They drew a line in the sand and walked off the job last February. Their picket line remained solid through wind, rain, snow, and lately, heat. Smith-Campbell, despite her failing health, dedicated herself to the struggle. Her coworker, Paulette Cameron, remembers how "Audrey was very determined, always on the picket line, always chanting, even though she had asthma and had to use a pump."

Isaac Nortey, an 1199 vice president for SEIU's nursing home division, called Audrey a "pillar of the picket line." He continued, "When she appeared on the line, she brought everyone together." That Smith-Campbell played this kind of role came as no surprise to her son Dalton. "She was active every day on the picket line," he said. "She was the kind of person who made everyone want to go the extra mile, shout louder, chant louder."

Kervin Campbell, another striker and an 1199 delegate, told me, with a smile, "We had the same last name so we used to always say we were family. She made everyone feel like family. When we came out on strike, we all really banded together. If you were on the picket line, feeling down, Audrey would always ask, 'How are you?' She would talk to you and try to keep your spirit lifted. Every time you saw Audrey coming to the picket line, you felt good."

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THE UNION was able to give Audrey money for some, but not all, of the medications that she needed. According to Kervin Campbell, she would frequently give the money away to others if she felt they needed it more. She stretched her medications and far as possible, and when spring came around, was down to just one inhaler.

In mid-May, as she was getting herself ready to go to the picket line, she suffered a severe asthma attack. According to the union Web site, Smith-Campbell was put into an ambulance, but died before reaching the hospital. "She died fighting," her daughter Yvonne told a reporter.

Paulette Cameron worked with Smith-Campbell for 17 years. "I was very close to Audrey," she told me. "When I got the phone call that she was dead, I fainted. She was a loving, caring, spiritual, Christian woman. I miss her so much."

Three months after her death, and six months after the strike began, the New York City Council presented Audrey Smith-Campbell's family and coworkers with a proclamation of praise for her hard work and dedication. On the same day, a judge ruled that Sieger had violated the law and ordered her--within five days--to bring everyone back to work with full benefits.

As of this writing, it is still unclear whether the ruling will stick. Spilling out of the proclamation ceremony onto the steps of City Hall, though, family and friends could taste victory. But the taste was bittersweet.

"Although it took a long time to win," Dalton Campbell said proudly, "it goes to show that her efforts and the union's efforts weren't in vain."

"We're going back in, but without her," Kervin Campbell said. He thought for a moment, and added, "I know that she's still a part of us."

"I'm glad it's going to be over soon," Helen Duncan said. "Our victory is sweet and it's sour. You're going back, but without someone close to you. I've been at Kingsbridge 20 years with Audrey. She was one of those people you could always depend on. She was always helping everyone no matter who they were."

Duncan couldn't talk for long. She had to return to a hospital where another Kingsbridge worker was being treated for a heart attack--the striker's second in one week, according to Duncan.

In the richest country in the world (not to mention the richest country in world history), health care ought to be guaranteed to every soul. No one should have to stagger into an emergency room at the last minute to get it, and no one should have to walk a picket line six months to keep it.

Audrey Smith Campbell fought with every last breath in her body for justice. We ought to bring that kind of determination and spirit to the struggle for universal, single-payer health care.