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Shop Floor Politics
1974 Contract Ties Large Pay Hike To Job Cuts
The first union meeting that I ever attended was held in 1974. About a thousand nursing home workers were there to vote on our employers' final offer for an area-wide contract. The president of Retail Clerks local 789, Jerome Richgels, presided.
The union's bargaining committee recommended a vote in favor of the employers offer. This proposed settlement increased the lowest base wage, then about $2.15 per hour, by over 40 cents the first year, and topped out at $3.00 per hour in 1976.
The initial wage increase nearly made up for the ground lost since the previous contract was settled in 1971. At that time the Nixon Administration sponsored legislation which imposed a 5% limit on wage increases in union contracts. Both houses of Congress approved it with virtually no dissent.
However, it seemed to me that the base wage would not increase enough in the second and third year of the contract to offset increased living costs. I raised this point during the discussion period.
A more immediate problem with the new wage scale was that the employers had an escape clause, a provision called "Rule 49 approval," which allowed them to delay its implementation, then renege on the agreement to increase wages and reopen negotiations on this point.
'Rule 49 Approval' tied our wage increase to approval of employer cost statements by the Minnesota Department of Welfare. These cost statements gave an estimate of total labor costs based on the new pay scale.
The Department of Public Welfare allowed a nursing home owner to bill Medicaid and/or other parties for all approved labor costs, plus a surcharge to guarantee a profit of at least 10% per year on all capital costs.
The president of local 789 warned that our pay hike might be delayed due to the cost statement approval process. However, he predicted that the delay would be a short one, and that the wage increase would be paid retroactive to the day that the contract is supposed to go into effect. "It's like having money in the bank."
The vote to ratify the contract was taken by a show of hands. The vote in favor was recorded as being unanimous. I voted against it.
It was reported that the new pay scale went into effect right away at a few nursing homes. But most nursing home owners waited for approval of their cost statements.
Almost all of the cost statements submitted were rejected the first time around. Each time the Department of Welfare rejected a cost statement, the management would cut back on hours scheduled for union members.
Agitation Leads To Termination
Ironically, cuts in hours driven by the Rule 49 labor cost approval process reduced levels of direct nursing care below Rule 49 licensing requirements. Most of the nursing homes organized by Retail Clerks local 789 barely met this requirement at the time that the 1974 contract was ratified.
It was relatively easy to determine if the management of a nursing home was in compliance with its licensing requirement for hours of direct nursing care. It was a matter of adding up the hours of direct nursing care that residents at a nursing home should get, and hours worked by those who do work that counts as direct nursing care.
Nursing home residents were divided into three classifications. Every resident in each classification was supposed to receive a minimum number of hours of direct nursing care every day.
Nursing Assistants provided virtually all of the direct nursing care. The duties ordinarily performed by licensed nurses, pushing pills and pens, didn't fit the definition of direct nursing care.
At Commonwealth Nursing Home in St. Paul, where I worked as a nursing assistant, the process of cost statement rejection and cuts in hours dragged on for over eight months.
After a few months of this down-sizing operation, I paid a visit to the public library and obtained a copy of Rule 49 licensing requirements. I started keeping a record of hours of direct nursing care that residents were supposed to get each day, how many hours the nursing assistants were scheduled to work, and actual hours worked.
Recognizing the possibility that my employer would fire me for stirring up trouble, I made sure that I clocked in on time for all of my work shifts and tried to conduct myself as a model worker. My immediate supervisor gave me high marks on the performance evaluation covering my first six months on the job.
Then I assembled the data on compliance with minimum staffing requirements and laid it out to show the difference between minimum staffing requirements and actual staffing levels. I made copies of this record and distributed it to union members and staff nurses, and to some nursing home residents and their friends and family members who visited the facility when I was on duty.
I also put forth the view that our long-awaited pay raise was being held up to motivate us to accept cuts in hours, that this situation resulted from a deal cooked up between nursing home owners and the Minnesota legislature, and that our union should take a stand against it.
It didn't take long for the management to respond. The facility's administrator cautioned me that my allegations of understaffing constituted a violation of residents' rights. It was rumored that my activity had put our long awaited pay raise and back pay in jeopardy. My co-workers began to shun me.
Then a union business agent called me at home. In our telephone conversation, the business agent advised me that the union could not intervene in my behalf if the management at Commonwealth fired me.
To the management's misfortune, the pretext for firing me was an obvious frame-up on charges of patient abuse. The story circulating among nursing assistants was that a bearded orderly had fallen, or almost fell, on a female resident during a wheelchair to bed transfer. Reportedly, a female nursing assistant had asked the orderly to do the transfer and witnessed this event.
Presumably, the resident related to her family a version of the alleged incident for which I was fired that would have to be investigated as a possible act of patient abuse. The problem with accusing me of misconduct in relation to this incident was that it allegedly occurred during a weekend shift when I was off-duty and 1200 miles from the scene of the crime. I attended a mass anti-racist demonstration in Boston MA that weekend.
When I found a pink slip attached to my time card, I asked some other nursing assistants what it was about. Then I paid a visit to the administrator. The notice of termination was immediately retracted. I clocked-in, worked my shift and was back on the work schedule by the next day.
There was a suspect or two who fit the general description and who had the opportunity to do the deed that the management fired me for. But no further action was taken in relation to this alleged complaint of patient abuse.
Two Waves Of Mass Resignation
It seemed very unlikely that the management would take further action against me following the botched attempt to frame me up on patient abuse charges and fire me. For other union members, this situation reduced the fear of being victimized for openly discussing the issue of understaffing and what to do about it.
An unauthorized strike was considered, but it was generally regarded as an ineffective tactic, as well as being a very difficult thing to do. But this appraisal of the effectiveness of a strike threat, and the chances of making good on it began to change several months later.
The management continued to cut hours, and continued to report that the Department of Welfare was holding out on approval of their cost statements. Our pay raise wouldn't come through until the management achieved further cuts in the work force.
About mid-year, shortly after our pay raise went into effect and we collected our back pay, virtually all of the nursing assistants working the day shift quit all at once. They finished out that shift, their last shift, and refused to bargain.
Replacements had to be found on 16 hours notice, staffing levels on the day shift had to be increased. To avoid this, management reportedly offered to make some concessions to the resigning day shift nurses aids, such as increased staffing on the day shift. But no one was interested.
What prompted this mass resignation was the alleged harassment of a nursing assistant. The story I heard was that the Assistant Director of Nursing had shadowed a nursing assistant for the major part of several shifts. It was rumored that the nursing assistant quit without advanced notice because she was unable to continue working.
Some of the newly hired nursing assistants had worked for the Director of Nursing at other nursing homes. By and large these were workers with strong anti-union sentiments. They received premium wage rates and special consideration in such matters as work schedules, work assignments, the assignment of break times, etc.
The cost of grooming a clique of day shift nursing assistants loyal to the management was covered at the expense of workers in other departments and nursing assistants on the evening shift. A lot of regularly scheduled hours were cut for nursing assistants on the evening shift, and no replacements were sought for absences due to illness and some of the shifts left open due to vacations.
Most workers on the evening shift were convinced that their resignation en mass could force the management to offer some concessions. Minimal demands discussed and generally agreed upon by evening shift workers included the restoration of hours cut since the 1974 contract ratification vote.
There were three nursing assistants who frequently met to lay the groundwork for carrying out a mass resignation tactic. Several other nursing assistants, a few licensed nurses and workers from other departments attended one or more of these meetings. Our main task was to gauge when conditions would be most favorable to strike.
By early October, a few nursing assistants had been on the verge of quitting their jobs individually, but were persuaded to wait until a critical mass of union members were ready to do the same. The window of opportunity to strike with a good chance of success appeared to be close at hand, and it would probably be quite brief.
There was some discussion over whether to set a date for the mass resignation. I proposed that we set a date if the mass resignation didn't happen in a more or less spontaneous fashion very soon. After some discussion, we decided to leave the timing to chance. Hopefully, a favorable moment to strike would reveal itself and the element of surprise would work to our advantage.
One day in November 1975, every union member working the evening shift reportedly submitted their resignations, putting the management on notice that this was the last shift they would work, unless the management took some steps to improve working conditions.
They met with the administrator and presented their demands. The administrator had to accept all of their resignations or accede to their demands. If management accepted one resignation, it would have to accept them all. The management acceded to their demands.
Immediately, scheduled hours of work returned to what they were just before ratification of the 1974 contract. Staffing levels for nursing assistants increased more than that on a heavy care unit in order to bring the facility into compliance with rule 49 licensing requirements.
The Formation Of An Ad-Hoc Grievance Committee
The management at Commonwealth Nursing home was fairly well behaved for several months after it faced the threat of what resembled an unauthorized strike in November 1975. However, there were still some individual grievances that had to be addressed.
It wasn't common practice in local 789 for union stewards to handle grievances. Many union members didn't trust their stewards to act as their representatives. Fairly prevalent was the view that the union's shop stewards and paid staff, including elected officers, were company stooges.
Leonard Pitulla, the union steward at Commonwealth Nursing Home, wasn't known to handle grievances himself and didn't hand out a lot of advice on the subject. However, he steered a few union members with beefs against the management to those who had played a leading role in bringing about the mass resignation of November 1975.
When Leonard died in 1976, he was replaced as union steward by Dawn Sherry, a nursing assistant associated with a clique of day shift nursing assistants. Most of these nursing assistants voiced strong anti-union sentiments and enjoyed some perks for being friends of the Director of Nursing.
The new union steward was appointed, presumably by the union president on the basis of a recommendation of a union business agent. The selection of this union steward was unquestionably influenced by the fore-mentioned management- friendly clique of nursing assistants and approved by management.
An example of how our new union steward handled grievances was the complaint of a laundry worker who had requested a maternity leave before taking it. She returned to work as a new hire, taking a couple steps backward in pay, going to the bottom of the seniority list, and losing some paid vacation days that were tied to length of employment.
Our employment contract included a provision for maternity leave and leaves of absence for health problems and personal reasons without penalties. But the employer interpreted this provision to mean that granting a leave of absence under any circumstance was optional.
The aggrieved worker went to the administrator, accompanied by the union steward. The administrator re-affirmed the decision to regard her as a re-hire. The union steward backed up the administrator, and so did a member of the union's paid staff who squashed the appeal.
Then a group of union members who worked in the nursing, laundry, kitchen and maintenance departments assembled to discuss the maternity leave grievance. I took the position that we shouldn't let the management have its way, regardless of what the contract said. We could invent some doctrine or another to support the contention that the employer was in violation of the contract.
I volunteered to do some research on English grammar and analyze the language used in the leave of absence provision. Perhaps we could argue that our employer was misreading it.
A day or two later, I reported my findings to the grievance committee. I made an extremely convincing argument that, although the contract language was hard to decipher, its meaning was clear and unambiguous on the issue in dispute, and that the employer was in the wrong.
There was no doubt that we had a winnable grievance on our hands. But the aggrieved union member decided not to proceed with it. She was persuaded to withdraw her grievance by an alleged threat of retaliation by the administrator, allegedly passed along by our union steward.
To the assemblage of about 10 union members, I proposed that if this grievance fight resulted in the firing of the aggrieved union member, we should set up a fund, in an attempt to compensate this union member for any lost income. I pledged 5% of my wages and promised to strong-arm other union members for donations if it were necessary to set up such a fund. Everyone at this meeting made a similar pledge.
The grievance fight was on again, but there was the matter of how to proceed with it. There were a couple of proposals put forward to take action against the union business office, such as legal action against the company and union, and picketing the union's headquarters. This approach was based upon the view that officials of our union conducted themselves as company agents, and shouldn't be let off the hook for their role in this affair.
I proposed that we concentrate all of our fire on the company, and appeal to the officials of our local for support. If we couldn't get the officials of our union to take our side, we could at least make it too costly for them to take the employers side.
I would talk with the local president in order to explain our position, and communicate our intention to take matters into our own hands if we didn't obtain satisfactory results through normal channels.
If a phone call to the union local's president wasn't enough, we could issue an appeal for support at the next business meeting of the union local. We could get informational leaflets into the hands of workers at other nursing homes.
I suggested that we could also approach groups likely to support us, such as women's rights groups. We could set up picket lines at Commonwealth. We should prepare to go on strike over this issue. However, a phone call was all that was needed.
Two Union Stewards, Two Union Regimes
Soon after the maternity leave grievance was resolved, a group of union members requested that the union local's president call an election for the union steward post at Commonwealth. Instead, a deal was made. The current union steward, Dawn, was designated as the day-shift union steward. I was appointed as the off-shift union steward.
Initially, I was reluctant to accept appointment as the off-shift union steward. The union local's constitution allowed for the election of union stewards by majority vote. Moreover, I had never expressed an interest in serving as a union steward, and felt that there were others who should be considered for the job.
However, I failed to convince anyone that it would be better to assert our right to elect a new union steward than to settle for two appointed union stewards. The argument in favor of going along with the union steward appointments went like this:
Why go to the trouble of holding an election? If an election were held, it seemed likely that most union members would want to vote for me. It also seemed that the day shift steward didn't have the standing to exercise any authority as a union representative.
However, the day shift union steward had some authority to act on behalf of the union local's business office, the management, and the management-friendly clique of day shift nursing assistants. My appointment as off-shift steward made little difference to nursing assistants on the day shift. Those who had cause to complain about being treated unfairly tended to keep their complaints to themselves.
On the off-shifts, the charge nurses and supervisors in other departments didn't give their subordinates much cause for complaint. The most memorable grievances resulted from the firings of a licensed nurse and a nursing assistant for alleged patient abuse.
On behalf of the health care workers fired for patient abuse, I investigated the allegations, found evidence in both cases that these workers were innocent, and prevailed upon the management to withdraw the charges. In one case I had a theory of how the frame-up came about that was confirmed by the confessions extracted, Perry Mason-style, from a couple of nursing assistants who had a role in setting it up.
The Union Leadership Makes A Deal To Eliminate Paid Sick Leave
Near the end of 1976, the union business office struck a deal which allowed employers to eliminate paid sick leave provided for in the existing contract. The day shift steward was willing to go along with it and many union members at Commonwealth were swayed by the employers' arguments for abolishing paid sick leave.
I contended that, unless ratified by a majority vote of the union membership, this agreement was illegitimate. The great majority of union members opposed the elimination of sick leave when the issue was framed as a question of whether we had a right to vote on amendments to our contract.
The elimination of sick leave affected union members at every nursing home under contract with local 789. I correctly predicted that my employer would withdraw notice of this policy change and continue to provide paid sick leave.
I presented the administrator with an ultimatum: immediately withdraw notice that paid sick leave was to be eliminated, or else. I explained that the change in policy on sick leave constituted an amendment to our contract. The agreement to so amend our contract wasn't valid unless a majority of union members voted to ratify it.
The management at Commonwealth complied with the demand to withdraw notice that sick leave would be eliminated, but did so under protest, lodging a complaint with the union business office about the union's regime at this nursing home.
A union business agent paid me a visit on the job to reprimand me in the presence of several union members. He told me that my refusal to go along with the agreement on sick leave was a violation of union discipline.
I replied that it was the union business office that had committed a breach of discipline by making a deal behind our backs.
He then explained that it was necessary to "play ball" with the employer, and parted with the remark that I was too mule-headed to make a good union official.
The Turning Point In a Battle For Union Recognition:
A Picket Line & March in White Bear Lake, MN
During the early part of 1977, the leadership of local 789 issued the call for a picket line at a large nursing home in White Bear Lake MN. About half of the 80 union members at Commonwealth turned out for the picket line, matching the number of picketers provided by the rest of the local.
Local 789 had been conducting an organizing drive at a White Bear Lake facility. The union won a National Labor Relations Board election, but the employer refused to recognize the union and negotiate an employment contract. Complaints to the NLRB about unfair labor practices, such as firing anyone who openly supported the union organizing drive, had no effect on the management.
As a last resort, the leadership of the union local called a picket line at the White Bear Lake facility on short notice. Plans for the picket line were announced to members attending a monthly business meeting of the union just a few days in advance. It is probable that the union staff also contacted union stewards at several nursing homes.
After I heard about the plan for a picket line at a monthly business meeting of local 789, I started talking it up to every union member I could meet with face-to-face at my work place Two other union members who formed the core of an informal shop floor leadership set to work on the organization of a car caravan and the manufacturing of picket signs.
At the White Bear Lake facility, the picket line inspired most of the workers to show their support for the union, and some of the workers coming off duty at the afternoon shift change joined the picket line. The picketers then proceeded on a march through the town's main business district. Union recognition and a contract soon followed.
It is likely that sentiment in favor of a strike at the White Bear facility was strong enough to convince the management to bargain for a contract with the union before things got out of hand. The management at this nursing home also had to consider the effect of its trouble with the hired help on filling beds.
The organizing drive was blemished only by plumbing clogged by linen being flushed down utility room hoppers. Those who had a proper attitude about their employer's property suffered the constant reminder of these shameful deeds in the form of round-the-clock services by Roto-Rooter.