OAKLAND, Calif. - Their hair is gray. Some use walkers, others carry canes. But that didn't stop dozens of residents of the Piedmont Gardens retirement community from coming out to clap, cheer and sing as they rallied outside the complex Aug. 27 to declare their support for 38 workers "replaced" during a long-running contract dispute.
"We, the residents of Piedmont Gardens, are here this evening to support you, the employees who have been replaced - really, fired," Dorothy Rice, a four-year resident, and current president of the Independent Residents' Council, told the gathering. "We know in our hearts that you are a very caring, very devoted and very hardworking group of people. It's unfair and inhumane that you have been prevented from coming back to work."
As residents and displaced workers alternated at the mike, one woman resident said it all: "Piedmont Gardens is our home, and everyone who lives or works here is part of a giant family. That family has now been separated. We feel very badly about that."
Thanking the residents for their support, Gloria McNeal, a certified nursing assistant at Piedmont Gardens for 21 years, told them, "We love you all. We miss you and think about you every day." The firings didn't just happen abruptly, she said, but followed prolonged problems with the administration. "We had a lot more people out before us," McNeal said. "We are working hard for them to come back, as well."
Neighbors joined in, too. Michael Scollard, a dentist whose office is across the street, said he has treated Piedmont Gardens residents for 30 years. "I've seen how hard these people work," he said. "I've seen them do the tasks that most relatives would never want to do. It really gratifies me to see all these residents come out."
The workers' union, United Healthcare Workers West, SEIU, has been in contract negotiations since February with American Baptist Homes of the West, which operates 33 retirement facilities serving some 4,700 residents in four states. The workers have been without a contract since April.
Earlier this month, after talks stalled, about 150 workers struck for five days. When they returned, 38 of the strikers, including the whole bargaining committee, were told they were being replaced. An attorney for ABHOW claimed the replacements were not permanent, but there was "no place" for the workers at present.
Union steward and bargaining committee member Sheila Nelson, a janitor at Piedmont Gardens, told the People's World that while health care and pensions are on the table, the biggest issue is job security for workers cited for disciplinary issues, including "unilateral changes in treatment over union activity. We felt like our forebears fought for us to have these rights under law," she said.
The union has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the dispute.
Piedmont Gardens and its sister facility in Oakland, Grand Lake Gardens, are the only two unionized ABHOW facilities, Nelson said. Other workers and residents have said they feel the management would like to break the union.
Residents have already conducted a letter writing campaign, and several participated in earlier protests in Oakland and in Pleasanton, where ABHOW is headquartered.
If last week's vigil is any sign, management is going to hear more, from a group of residents far from retired as activists.
Photo: Dorothy Rice, left, president of the Independent Residents' Council, listens as certified nursing assistant Gloria McNeal addresses the crowd. (PW/Marilyn Bechtel)