Union Labels

FOLUSO ALLISON HASN'T had a raise in two years. An LPN at the Nile Health Care Center in Minneapolis, he makes $10 an hour after five years on the job. And that's not even the most frustrating thing about his job. The Nile, Allison says, has taken to short-shifting: laying off workers to save money and expecting the survivors to pick up the slack. "They fill up the whole place now with temps," Allison says. "Sometimes temps make up half of the staff. And it does affect the care. Clients aren't getting the care that they paid for."

If a vote scheduled to be held next week goes as expected, Allison and his co-workers at Nile will become the fifth Twin Cities nursing-home staff to unionize with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in the past year. In each of the organizing drives, the complaints have been pretty much the same: Poor conditions, rotten pay, and never-ending layoffs frustrate workers and, recent studies of the industry suggest, can lead to abuse of vulnerable residents. Nursing-home workers, many of them women and minorities, are the kind of service-sector employees labor unions have long ignored. Faced with moribund enrollment, however, unions today are reaching out to all kinds of nontraditional potential members. And the frustrated workers are eager to listen.

Nile management responded to inquiries with a fax that read in part: "While we face challenges at the Nile, we do not believe that any union is in the best interest of our employees, our residents, or the Nile." The statement also contends that the facility has "little control" over levels of funding and staffing because of governmental regulations.

A 1990 Department of Health and Human Services study of the nursing-home industry found rampant physical, verbal, and emotional abuse of clients, including misuse of restraints and medical neglect. Since then, say workers like Allison, the conditions that can exacerbate abuse have worsened: In recent years, nursing homes have replaced skilled nurses with inadequate numbers of undertrained temps; both skilled and unskilled employees work harder.

Despite these conditions, as a group, nursing-home workers are underrepresented in unions. The presence of organized labor in nursing homes is "surprising and pitifully low," says SEIU's Jeff Farmer. Which makes nursing homes ripe for the organizing: Four local nursing homes have signed on with SEIU in the past year, and with more than 80 percent of the Nile workforce expected later this month to vote to unionize, the South Minneapolis facility will likely be the fifth.

In part, these numbers represent a conscious drive on SEIU's part to recruit in nursing homes. "The labor movement has made the commitment to organizing," Farmer says, explaining that SEIU's current focus is on health care. "There are so many changes taking place in health care, at the corporate level and the job level. To go through that change without any voice, just waiting for things to happen to them--that's not a good way to prepare for the future."

For unions, the renewed interest in organized labor couldn't come at a better time, or from a better sector. Long accused of reinforcing management's gender and race biases, unions have paid for ignoring the needs of women and minorities with thinning ranks of blue-collar members. SEIU is more diverse than most unions, and its nursing-home campaign should add to its nontraditional membership base, says Farmer. "These are areas where immigrants, women, and minorities work in low-wage jobs." Furthermore, nonunion workers drive wages down for union employees.

For workers at Nile, the gains are even more concrete. "There's no question that wages and benefits are under attack," says Farmer. "Many [workers] are obviously not even keeping up with the rate of inflation." Nile workers have launched a newsletter to garner support for the union, and have reprinted letters of support from U.S. Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, state union leaders, and even a dozen local ministers who offered to mediate the labor dispute.

Management, meanwhile, has hired a "union consultant" to combat the drive. "They're doing one-on-one talks, scaring people," Allison says. "It's been very difficult. It's all about power and control--they don't like to lose control and they're fighting the union tooth and nail."

Still, with a majority of workers signing union authorization cards, Allison and his co-workers are betting the union will win when the issue is put to a vote next Friday. "It just has got to the point where people are tired of the problems here."

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