NYU students stand for 1199

October 24, 2012

Daniel Hinton and Ted Guggenheim report on a campaign by NYU students to build solidarity for health care workers on strike at a facility owned by a big university donor.

FOR MORE than three months, members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NE have been marching a picket line seven days a week, from six in the morning to nine at night.

On October 20, student activists representing New York University's (NYU) Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) joined more than 30 striking health care workers and union members on their daily march in Westport, Conn.

HealthBridge Management "coincidentally" decided to throw a party on the same day in front of the Westport Health Care Center as a gesture of appreciation for replacement workers, nonunion members and residents. We are skeptical about the "coincidence" because so far, Daniel Straus and his union-busting companies, HealthBridge and CareOne, have proven to be shameless at every step of this struggle.

As union organizer Charles Nystrom put it, "HealthBridge/CareOne will stop at nothing as long as they don't have to take accountability for what they've done."

On October 20, replacement workers and their allies tried to antagonize the picket by cheering for management and photographing union members and activists. In every window, signs written in magic marker taunted union members with messages like: "Love never walks away."

Striking workers at Westport Health Care Center on the march earlier this summer
Striking workers at Westport Health Care Center on the march earlier this summer

All of this happened while experienced, qualified and unionized workers gathered for another day in their fight for a fair contract. "I'm here because I want my job back," said Marlionne Moise, a certified nursing assistant who has worked at the Westport Health Care Center for 16 years. "And by the same token, I want the residents to be happy because while we're [outside], they are not happy."

Caroline, a laundry aide for seven years, also responded to the signs attacking the strike. "The residents miss us because we got to that point where we became a family," Caroline said. "We know inside it's not like it was before we left."

Many of the strikers have worked at HealthBridge for more than a decade, and most are women with children and families that they also care for when they go home. "We have families, we have children in college, and we can't afford to live on this contract," Caroline said. "They tried to take away all of our benefits for people making $12 an hour."

Eloise Powell, one of the union members on strike, said, "When you're doing the math, it's like they're reducing me back to where I was 15 years ago."

DURING CONTRACT negotiations, Straus' HealthBridge/CareOne have pulled all kinds of tricks.

According to Nystrom, HealthBridge Management threatened to close facilities and fire workers, and has illegally locked out health care center workers. In ruling against HealthBridge, two recent decisions in administrative courts confirm these allegations.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is currently seeking an injunction against HealthBridge in federal court. If the federal judge agrees with the NLRB and grants an injunction, the company must accept the decision, even while they appeal.

"The Labor Board has done something rare," Nystrom said. Indeed, very rare--the NLRB filed for an injunction in less than 4 percent of federal complaints issued in 2011. "The danger and damage this company has caused is so great that [the NLRB] said that we need a remedy now," said the union organizer

Still, despite legal setbacks, Straus and his companies haven't slowed in their campaign to destroy unions and workers' lives.

On October 10, HealthBridge/CareOne went on the offensive by filing a lawsuit under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act, accusing SEIU 1199 of "extortion," "criminal sabotage" and engaging in a campaign that it deems to be "economic terrorism."

Labor journalist and Salon contributor Josh Eidelson explains the nature and use of the RICO statute since its introduction:

Along with easing criminal racketeering prosecutions, it allows plaintiffs to bring civil lawsuits against organizations whose members allegedly committed crimes. But in recent years, it's become a weapon for companies seeking to squash union organizing. Without showing that unions are mobbed or murderous, companies get to bring civil suits over unions' "corporate campaigns" as though they were criminal conspiracies.

But while the companies are using the courts to attack their workforce, they're also launching a public relations offensive. "In a joint press release, [HealthBridge/CareOne] stressed that they have worked cooperatively with the unions in the past and fully respect and embrace the collective bargaining process," according to a news report.

FORMED AS a student-labor solidarity group "dedicated to cultivating the natural alliance between students and workers," it was only natural for SLAM to rally to the side of union members who have been struggling against Straus' company for more than a year.

That's because Daniel Straus is a member of NYU Law School's Board of Trustees and primary funder of the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice at NYU. The Institute, established in 2009, claims to support "high-level research and scholarship on topics falling within a broad definition of law and justice." But Straus' treatment of his workers makes a mockery of "law and justice."

Last semester, SLAM organized rallies and speak-outs on NYU's campus in support of Connecticut nursing home workers after they were locked out for approximately five months beginning in December. Organizers and former CareOne employees from a facility in Somerset County, N.J., came to NYU to tell their story about being locked out since they voted to form a union in 2009. These employees remain jobless despite an NLRB ruling that they had been unlawfully kept out of their workplace.

SLAM's campaign intensified this semester after SEIU 1199 members began their strike in the summer. Denouncing the illegal business practices of Straus's company, SLAM held several rallies in support of the workers in front of NYU Law School and the ironically named Straus Institute.

The increasing intensity of SLAM's on-campus activities attracted the ire of Straus and his companies. CareOne originally denied any connection with approximately 30 counter-protesters who appeared outside the Straus Institute on September 11 and abused SLAM activists. But after it was revealed that the pro-Straus thugs had been paid $100 for four hours of anti-union bullying, the company changed its tune, admitting that it had in fact hired "security."

Despite all this, NYU maintains that it will not get involved in the labor dispute or join with SLAM in its denunciation of the company's tactics of intimidation on campus. When pressed by The Villager's Sam Spokony, an NYU spokesperson stated:

The university is not a party to the labor dispute [and] has no input into how either side is managing its p.r. campaigns to convey its views...And we caution all parties to take the steps necessary to ensure that [the principle of lawful and peaceful protest] is upheld and to avoid any actions that might be seen to undermine it.

Apparently, Straus' million-dollar endowments and donations have blinded NYU administrators from seeing how Straus' own actions have undermined "the principle of lawful and peaceful protest" for NYU students. As Nystrom said, "The school should be asking itself, 'What are we doing with a trustee who goes out and hires goons to intimidate students and workers exercising their rights to free speech?'"

WHILE STRAUS' HealthBridge/CareOne will continue to accuse the union of "extortion" and health care center workers of "walking away" from patients, those on the picket line know who the real "economic terrorists" are.

"I would ask Straus: Could he afford to live off $16 an hour?" said Agatha, who has been a nursing assistant at the HealthBridge center in Westport for 19 years. After accounting for the cutbacks in management's most recent proposal, hourly wages for most workers will be even lower than that. "What [Straus] wants to do is get rid of the union," Agatha said.

That's precisely why this struggle is so significant. Straus not only wants to increase health care costs for employees, decrease pension benefits, limit work hours, and cut sick days and holidays, but above all he wants to destroy the workers' rights to unionize and to collectively bargain.

Too bad for Straus, the workers and the judicial system have failed to oblige. From the strike to the union's victories with the NLRB and in the administrative courts, 1199 SEIU has experienced early though limited success. "[HealthBridge/CareOne] have been somewhat successful in other places, but they failed here because the workers here are united," Nystrom claimed.

By standing up to a member of New York City's upper crust, a union of mostly immigrant Black women have brought working-class struggle to one of the wealthiest suburbs in the United States. According to the union members themselves, they plan to keep at it until they win what they deserve.

Caroline made her and her colleagues' intentions clear: "Daniel Straus, you are greedy, and we are not going anywhere."

Dan DiMaggio and Alexis Lim contributed to this article.

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