Health care workers demand health care

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BRONX, N.Y. — Union rights and the right to health care are on the minds of many in this Bronx neighborhood, where 220 health care workers at the Kingsbridge Heights Nursing Home have been on strike since Feb. 20.

Picket lines are staffed 24/7, and the workers, who are African American, Latino, Caribbean, Polish, Polish American and other nationalities, are standing firm against Helen Sieger, the home’s millionaire owner.

KHNH workers have been without a contract since 2002, and in the past year faced cuts in sick days and holidays.

The “straw that broke the camel’s back” was the cancellation of health care benefits in November 2007, at which point Sieger was almost $3 million dollars behind in payments to the union’s benefit fund. Workers are also quick to point out that there are other issues, including overt union-busting efforts, and a long history by the home of unfair labor practices and reneging on court-ordered obligations.

That irony of health care workers with no health care coverage has contributed to the outpouring of support the strikers have received, from community residents, elected officials and the families of KHNH patients.

At a rally on March 15, attended by thousands of 1199 SEIU members, union president George Gresham said, “For however long it takes, our entire union is here to support you.” Mary Soliday, who lives on the same street as the home, said, “When my dad was sick, I only saw the doctor once, out in the hall. These are the people who take care of patients.” Angel, a resident of the nearby Amalgamated Housing cooperative, said he’d come to the rally “because there’s so much injustice around, and here’s a chance to play a small part in undoing some of that.”

Workers attending the rally traveled from as far away as Gouverneur, N.Y. (near the Canadian border) and Washington, DC. They sounded the same theme: “If Sieger can get away with this, we’ll be next.” One sign read, “Bronx-Lebanon Workers against ALL Kinds of Injustice.”

Less than a week later, at a community “Fact-Finding Town Hall Meeting,” workers and neighbors testified about the reasons for the strike, and its impact on patients and on the community. A 22-year old dietary worker spoke — and was greeted by the crowd — with passion, declaring, “Where is the government? They need to shut Sieger down.”

Another worker, who started as a scab but quit and joined the picket line after a day, described how he was hired very quickly, without having had required blood or TB tests. Others talked about the hiring of security guards without proper background checks, and neglect of patients.

The union has expressed frustration with the inability to make progress to settle the strike and restore the workers’ benefits, despite having tried every avenue, including meetings with arbitrators, appealing to the city and state government, and filing charges with all regulatory agencies dealing with nursing home operations.