Kingsbridge strikers hang tough

August 5, 2008

Theresa Lee and Peter Lamphere report on the five-month struggle by workers at a Bronx nursing home.

IN THE staff parking lot at the Kingsbridge Heights Rehabilitation and Care Center located in the Bronx, there's a shiny Jaguar which hasn't been moved since the day five months ago that the workers here went on strike. The car's cost? A mere $1,040 a month for the lease, paid for by New York State Medicare funds. This is the same nursing home that made over $5 million in profit last year.

Despite these profits, in November 2007, Kingsbridge Heights owner Helen Sieger stopped paying into the health care benefits fund run by the workers' union, Service Employees International Union 1199/United Health Care Workers East.

Workers voted to strike in February 2008 unless Sieger was paid up. She responded with a memo that all union workers should empty their lockers and submit for new identification photographs. When some workers refused, the first refusal received a one-day suspension, the second another one-day suspension and, if they still refused on the third occasion, she fired them.

Next, Sieger sent a memo to department heads warning them that if they joined the union they would be fired. Another union-busting tactic she used was placing union workers on part-time schedules, while nonunion workers remained full time.

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

This kind of harassment and intimidation is not new at Kingsbridge Heights. Ever since Sieger took over the nursing home in 1995, she has aggressively implemented anti-union and cost-saving measures that defy the rules of common sense but not the rule of profit.

The center's two kitchens and two laundries were merged, forcing half the staff to cook and clean for the same number of residents. Also, Sieger laid off half of the maids and demanded that the other workers pick up the extra work. If they complained, they would be fired.

As a dietary worker, Shakty, put it, "Her way is to cut the job force in half--to make more profit." Laundry workers report that she is cutting corners on towels for the patients, allowing one towel for every two patients. She has insisted the workers wash the patient's personal laundry with dirty linens, despite the fragile health of many of the residents. The linen contracting industry has some issues with Sieger, too. Her modus operandi is to hire them and never pay, so the contractors eventually come and collect all the linen.

Other workers report similar experiences. Ian Ralph is a porter at the nursing home, and doing laundry is not anywhere to be found in his job description. After refusing to clean snow from a manager's car--also outside his job description--Ralph was assigned to the laundry room for over 17 days. When he finally refused the assignment, he was fired.

It took two years and a judge's order to get Ralph's job back, with back pay. Yet immediately before the strike, Sieger suspended Ralph for three days because a leak developed in the roof at about 11 p.m.--even though his shift had finished at 3 p.m. "She [Sieger] said it was my responsibility, but I wasn't even there," Ralph said in an interview. Other porters have been suspended for several weeks for refusing housekeeping duties.

BEFORE THE strike began, another worker, Pansy Shaw, was called into Sieger's office and offered a $3,500 check. "What is this?" she asked. Sieger replied that it was for her pharmacy bill, because Shaw had been having difficulty with her prescription benefits.

When Shaw insisted that "this money should be paid to the [union health care] benefit fund," Sieger angrily tore up the check. In retaliation, Shaw was fired before the strike began in January. She was accused of posting a flyer calling Sieger a manipulator and liar. Sieger claimed that because Jamaican patois was used in the flyer, it must have been posted by Shaw.

Damaris Cuas, an assistant to the activities director, was fired after going to her father's funeral in the Dominican Republic and not presenting an original death certificate on her return to excuse her absence. She couldn't do so because the FedEx delivery from the cemetery was simply a few days late.

"I worked there for nine years," Cuas pointed out, "but that meant nothing to her." Cuas was finally hired back four months later. According to Cuas, Sieger short-changes the activities department on materials and often things like board games are bought by the activities director.

It's no wonder the residents support the workers in their strike, since it is painfully obvious Sieger couldn't care less. While the nursing home averaged only one death per week from 2000 to 2006, according to SEIU, now 30 residents have died in the past five months, a much higher average, because of the inferior care provided by scab workers. Workers have also paid the ultimate price for Sieger's callousness, with one nonunion worker dying of kidney and liver failure and a striker, Audrey Hope Campbell, dying of an asthma attack in May. Both lacked health benefits because of Sieger's greed.

SEIU delegate Kervin Campbell explained some of the legal tactics the union has deployed in this situation. "The inspectors [Health Department] had closed the investigation with no violations and the union went down there with some documentation and they reopened the investigation," he said. Furthermore, "[SEIU] got New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to open an investigation on [Sieger] and the home for Medicaid fraud and they have reached out to Governor Paterson for his support."

Also, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is asking for an injunction in federal court for unfair labor practice charges, including stopping payments into the health fund, entering into a new contract with the union and then refusing to abide by it, and spying on union members. The hearing for those charges is scheduled for September 15, so the NLRB have requested a temporary injunction for "interim relief" to force Sieger to make the health care payments and give workers their jobs back until the hearing.

Strikers are well aware of the broader implications of their struggle. As porter Ian Ralph put it, "This is a fight for all workers."

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