SEIU 1199: Workers Must Have a Winning Strategy!

1199logoLocal 1199 is a union made up of hospital and nursing home workers. It was founded by a member of the Communist Party and when it was first organized, it received a lot of support from Martin Luther King Jr. Today, 1199 is affiliated to SEIU (Service Employee International Union) and the gains of the union members are under attack. Socialist Appeal spoke about this with Sam Swartz, a Marxist and 1199 union delegate, who works in a Long Island nursing home.


SA: Sam, why are you a delegate in Local 1199?

SS: I believe that workers need to be united and organized, that is why I am active in the union. I have been a delegate for more than 15 years. The union magazine, Our Life and Times, did a piece on me last December. Alone, the boss can pick on a worker and make his life a living hell or even fire him. But the workers united have more power than the boss. The bosses need us to run the nursing home, but not vice versa. That is why I am a delegate, to bring the voice of the workers to the union leadership. I was just reelected unopposed this year. I campaigned on a program of no givebacks and for the union to break from its support of the bosses’ parties, Democrats and Republicans, and help build a mass labor party.

SA: What are the problems facing nursing home workers?

SS: Our workers work very hard. They are helping disabled and elderly people. We are understaffed and yet we go above and beyond to help the residents. All we ask is for wages and benefits that would allow us and our families to live our lives with some comfort, dignity, and security. Instead, the bosses want to push us to poverty. Remember, the increases that we have gotten on average since the 1970s have not kept up with prices—our wages in effect have been cut.

SA: How are the nursing homes’ contracts organized?

SS: There are two kinds of nursing homes: the “not-for-profit” homes with a contract with the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes tied to our National Benefit Fund (NBF), and the proprietary homes, that are “for-profit” and are in the Greater NY Fund. Some proprietary homes have “me too” agreements and their contracts are modeled on the League contract. The NBF provides superior benefits.

SA: The nursing home bosses say they need Local 1199 to give up wage increases and benefits, including cuts to the pension. They claim they don’t have the money to pay the staff what they are getting. What do you say to this?

SS: First, the revenue made by all of the nursing homes, whether for-profit or not, comes from fees, insurance policies, Medicaid and Medicare. However, this revenue only comes in because workers are there to cook, clean, guide, train, exercise and otherwise take care of the residents. Without the workers, there is no service for the residents and no revenue coming in. Therefore, the executives’ salaries and benefits and all of the profits come from unpaid labor of the workers. Some of the proprietary homes have owners that own 16 to 20 homes. Even in the League (Voluntary) homes, which are not-for-profit, a CEO can get a home, car, driver, and a salary much larger than my members make. If they want to cut, they can cut that!

SA: Local 1199 is talking about a one-day strike. What are the issues?

SS: Many of the “me too” homes are trying to switch from the NBF to the lower benefits of the Greater NY Fund. The bosses in the League also want to reduce the NBF benefits. Also, the workers at the proprietary homes did not get the 2.5% raise that workers at the League homes just received. Local 1199 has not been on strike at these places since the late 1980s. The union leaders think a one-day strike will show them that we mean business.

SA: What role have Governor Cuomo and the New York state government played in all of this?

SS: Cuomo has cut Medicaid as part of his austerity program. Remember, every dollar cut from state Medicaid means we lose another dollar of matching funds from the federal government. Cuomo’s cuts have created problems for the nursing homes. As part of his austerity, Cuomo has pushed for more proprietary homes with their lower labor costs, at the expense of the not-for-profit homes.

SA: How can the workers win this battle against the bosses and the State of New York?

SS: First, we have to understand that the bosses are united against the workers. They use the fact that one set of workers has better benefits to divide us and drive all of our wages and benefits down. The union leadership should demand one benefit fund at the higher level, which means all Local 1199 employers should be in the NBF. Second, the union leadership must mobilize the membership and explain that these nursing homes cannot be run without the workers, and the for-profits will not make money if there is a strike. Third, this fight must be taken to the state government. It should be made clear that the state must reverse the Medicaid cuts and put adequate money into the homes. If the state wants to save money, then it should take over the homes and eliminate the profits and the bloated salaries and benefits of the top CEOs.

SA: How can this fight be won?

SS: The union leadership must take this seriously. The bosses everywhere are fighting the workers for givebacks. The only way to win is through mass mobilization of the membership and reaching out to labor allies. Any strikes at the homes must be coupled with mass demonstrations against Cuomo. Imagine if the demonstrations at the NYC office of the governor were so big, traffic was snarled in Midtown? The union leadership must reach out to the NYC Central Labor Council and other unions. An injury to one is an injury to all. State unions like CSEA/AFSCME and PEF (Public Employees Federation) took big hits from Cuomo. City workers are without contracts and they were forced to take a tier 6 pension from Cuomo as well. These unions could help build mass demonstrations. Local 1199 should also reach out to allies like students, the workers of the future, who have seen continual tuition increases.

SA: Any final thoughts on these upcoming battles?

SS: The 1199 leadership needs to take this very seriously and be prepared. If not, our members and the people we serve are going to suffer serious cuts. If you think, like I do, that SEIU and Local 1199 needs a leadership that has a winning strategy, so that when we fight, we will win, please contact me. We can build a caucus of members who want a stronger and more powerful union.

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