Monday, January 26, 2009

Aliquippa Labor Battle Heats Up

Photo: Debi Davidson, RN and SEIU Member

SEIU Workers
Stage Sit-In
to Demand Justice,
Unpaid Wages

By Carl Davidson
Beaver County Blue

Aliquippa, PA, January 26, 2009–Seven labor activists—four Registered Nurses, a union secretary and two priests—staged an occupation of the medical library in the Commonwealth Medical Center in Aliquippa, PA to demand backpay for employees who lost their jobs when the hospital closed in December. After several hours, the seven were escorted off the property by officers arriving in six police cars.

The group entered the hospital just after noon while 100 workers and community supporters rallied in the bitter cold outside. “It’ll be an even colder day in hell before we roll over and play dead,” Michelle Bachelor, a nurse at the hospital, told the crowd. Along with some fired 250 workers, she was furious at having two weeks pay taken away, especially while the Pittsburgh bankruptcy court awarded payments to CMC executives and security personnel. “We want justice, now!” was the reply from the rally. Dozens of purple SEIU Local 1199 signs were held high against a background of black-and-gold jackets and caps in the colors of the Pittsburgh Steelers, which have become the dress code in throughout Western Pennsylvania.

“Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho! Give Us Our Pay, or We Won’t Go!” the crowd chanted as their delegation headed into the building, which was still open to a handful of hospital executives although it no longer serves the public. After about an hour of discussion, the delegation proclaimed they weren’t leaving, whether it took hours, over night or several days, until they got ‘proof’ their paychecks had been cut. ‘We’re not going anywhere, even though some of them in here don’t quite get that yet,’ was the message passed out to the rally.

“We simply want what’s owed to us,’ said Debi Davidson, an RN with 30 years in the hospital. “What they’ve done is outrageous and unfair, paying themselves and leaving us with nothing.” The CEO and other CMC and Bridge Finance officials still refused to be nailed down on when checks might be cut.

“Did you work those two weeks before Christmas?” asked Kathy Marino, another RN at the hospital, speaking at the rally. “Where you serving the community when they fired you? Did they pay themselves? Are they still billing the clients?” “Yes!” was the loud reply to each question, as she concluded that an injustice had been done to all of them.

Last week, a busload of the workers traveled to the Chicago Headquarters of Bridge Finance, which now holds CMC’s property. While protesting outside the Sears Tower, they were joined by workers from Republic Windows–the United Electrical union militants who had captured the country’s spotlight last month when they occupied their Chicago factory, also demanding payments due them. SEIU supporters from Chicago also turned out in force. Bridge Finance refused to meet or negotiate.

The workers have wide support in Aliquippa, a distressed steel town with a long history of militant labor battles. The hospital, formerly Aliquippa Community Hospital, was a gift to the residents of Beaver County from the United Steel Workers Local 1211. The hospital fell on hard times as the entire upper Ohio Valley was gutted by plant closings in the 1980s.

“Labor deserves a just wage,” declared Father Joseph Kleppner, of St Francis Cabrini Parish in Center Township, adding that when wages are denied, “we have slavery indeed.” Father Kleppner was joined in the day’s activities by Father Jack O’Malley, long active in local labor struggles. Kleppner and O’Malley both took part in the sit-in. “I’m not here for politics,’ concluded Father Kleppner. ‘This is a deeply moral question, a matter of doing what’s right, not only by the workers, but the entire community.’

Political solidarity was also at hand. “On behalf of the Beaver County Commissioners, and everyone in Beaver County” declared Joe Spivak, a local Democratic Party leader, “I want you to know that we are behind you. You have our full support, and then some, 110 percent!” Spivak went on to explain that not only were the workers due their wages, but that the county commissioners were doing all they could to find new parties that could purchase and re-open the medical facility. “This is a decent facility, and you are some of the best workers in the world. We can’t lose it.’ Pennsylvania’s 4th CD Progressive Democrats of America, a political group among the supporters of the 1199 workers, have been working for the passage of HR 676 which would make public stimulus funds available to open and operate the facility and others like it.

Solidarity from other sections of labor was also present. Bob Schmetzer from IBEW Local 712 offered his support, as did Frank Snyder of the PA AFL-CIO. Even though there are national tensions between his federation and SEIU’s ‘Change to Win’ alliance, Snyder declared, ‘You have the full support of AFL-CIO unions across the state. We’re going to win this. This is part of the change we expected when we worked for Obama, and now we’re going to see some of it coming from below.’

Even the Aliquippa police at the edge of the rally were sympathetic. One worker spoke to an officer, saying, ‘Sorry we dragged you out in this cold.’ ‘No problem,’ he replied. ‘We’re with you. We work with the nurses and the staff here all the time, from one emergency to the next. They’re terrific. You got a raw deal. Hell, I was born in this hospital!’ Later in the day, however the official assaignment of the police trumped their sympathy, as they took the sit-down people out. But no one was arrested.

The events at the hospital were a step toward a show of strength at the bankruptcy court in downtown Pittsburgh January 27 at 8:30 am, where the workers will demand that the court reconsider the earlier ruling that took their pay away.

[To lend support, sign the SEIU online petition at]

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