Wednesday, May 2, 2007

A May Day Picket Line

I went to the May Day SEIU 1199NJ Caregivers picket at the Regency
Heritage Nursing Home and marched with caregivers who were demanding a
return to a union contract, the restoration of wages that have been cut
more than a third, and no firings based on redefined job descriptions.
The caregivers were demanding this not only for themselves but for the
patients who need them to be healthy and productive workers.

For me, it was almost a homecoming of sorts, having lived in the South
Bronx until I went away to the University of Michigan in 1966. The
workers were overwhelmingly women, many Haitian and Latina women, and a
small number of African Americans.

The picket line reflected the multi-cultural spirit of the workers. A
former student of mine at Rutgers, an honors student who is now a
full-time trade union organizer was there and I was thrilled to her.
She told me more about the overall struggle.

A new owner wants to make more money(he already has a great deal) by
crippling the workers health benefits, sharply cutting their wages, and
redefining work categories to destroy seniority. The workers are
demanding a restoration of what they see as their rights and real
collective bargaining on a contract. As we picketed across the road
from the large Nursing Home complex, a union bargaining committee
marched across to the bosses office to demand serious negotiations. He
came up with some excuse and after one of the committee members "let him
have it" they returned to the us to give us the news.

There was a brief rally and statements by the SEIU1199 local leaders and
members. The most powerful statement, though, came from a caregiver who
suffers from severe asthma. She mentioned that she had to leave a
hospital because under the "health plan" the bosses have imposed, she
has to pay $250 a day for the hospital, plus specialist and other costs.
As the organizers said, when workers have to choose between health
care, rent and food, when they themselves are stressed out and made old
beyond their years, their abilities to care from the senior citizens in
their care is sharply reduced.

I spoke briefly about the heritage of May Day, the struggles for the 8
hour day, and they understood. I also told them that I was a professor
at Rutgers down the road and that our union was there supporting them
but also that I came from the South Bronx and my father had walked
around with a hernia for twenty-three years because he couldn't afford
an operation until Medicaid came into existence in the late 1960s and
they understood more.

It got me very angry that these socially necessary and valuable workers
were being exploited so callously by an employer who provides for profit
a necessary social service, one that determines both the quality of life
and the very lives of elderly, infirm citizens. On all days, not only
May Day, it should be clear that these senior citizens are as much
commodities to be milked of their resources by the Nursing Home owners
as the labor power of the workers who make the Nursing Home possible is
a commodity.

But the spirit was upbeat and the organizers and workers were very
positive. "We will be back" and we will keep coming back was the
general theme. We will strike if we don't get our rights was the
general theme. I will keep readers informed of this social struggle as
it develops.

As a postscript, the Regency Heritage House is a Jewish Nursing Home.
I told the workers that I would teach them some choice words in Yiddish
to use against the bosses in negotiations and they said that they were
willing and happy to learn.

Norman Markowitz

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