Photo: Fired-up hospital workers talk with their union chief, Neil Bisno, at rally.
Injustice in Aliquippa:
New Labor Battle
Over Hospital Shutdown
By Carl Davidson
Beaver County Blue
Hundreds of fired hospital workers are awakening the historic spirit of class struggle in Beaver County, as they confront an effort by heath industry financiers and a bankruptcy court to steal their wages after destroying their jobs.
That was the message made loud and clear at a rally of over 100 Commonwealth Medical Center workers and their allies at the Serbian Club on a snowy afternoon, January 9, in Aliquippa, Pa. The members of SEIU Local 1199 are organizing for further action at the US Bankruptcy court in downtown Pittsburgh on Jan.27, as well as at the offices of Bridge Finance Group in Chicago.
On Dec. 31 the bankruptcy court excluded some 250 workers from receiving their last two weeks wages and, at the same time, allowed a payout for executive salaries and 'critical employees,' like outside security firms. Not only were workers stripped of their jobs two weeks before Christmas, they were also stripped of paychecks due them for work performed, and health insurance and any benefits coming from the WARN Act for layoffs without advance notice.
'They had the nerve to pay the bosses who created the mess, running the hospital into the ground, but not the workers who kept it alive,' said Neil Bisno, president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania. "It is a travesty, and an outrage, and we won't stand for it."
Photo: Closed Hospital
One reason for the sharp rebuke of the court is the nature of both Aliquippa and its hospital. Commonwealth Medical Center took over Aliquippa Community Hospital only a year ago, when the nonprofit health care provider was in dire financial straits. The hospital was initially a gift to the Aliquippa area from Local 1211 of the United Steelworkers of America, one of the larger and more militant locals during the heyday of the steel industry in the upper Ohio Valley. It always provided decent care for working families throughout Beaver County's South Side. But when capital and jobs were sent overseas to low wage countries in the 1980s, the mills were shut down, leaving the area with large numbers of low-income unemployed with few resources. The hospital continued to provide services, but fell on hard times itself.
"The workers are due their wages, and Aliquippa is due justice," said Rev. Donald Green, who opened the rally, representing Jobs with Justice, the nationwide labor-community coalition network. "We're tired of being abandoned, stressed even further in our severely distressed neighborhoods."
One by one, hospital workers, mostly women, took the microphone and told their stories. "This was a great hardship for my family,' said Erin Bradovich, 'We shouldn't have to fight like this for what's rightfully ours. We survived this Christmas because I have a very large family, and that's what you are. I'm proud to have SEIU standing here with us."
Sharon Smith, another worker, denounced Commonwealth Medical bitterly: "They broke all their promises; we're supposed to survive now on what 'trickles down,' well why can't they survive on what 'trickles up?"
Johnny Tilman, Director of Quality at CMC, a worker there, but not in the union, said "Aliquippa is working-class family, and they betrayed us. We put our hearts into this work, and what did they do for us? Nothing."
Every worker focused on the plight of the wider community, as well as their own difficulties. Joe Spanik, a Beaver County Commissioner with deep roots in the area's labor movement, declared: "More than 30,000 people have depended on this hospital in this part of the county. The other nearby hospitals are across the river, and everyone here knows the state of our infrastructure. What happens if the bridge is closed and there's an emergency? We didn't have to be here, in this situation, but how can you justify paying those who broke this system by stealing the wages of those who kept in going? We won't justify it, and this is not over yet."
As the workers cheered Spanik, Bisno reminded them, "This is one of the reasons why it's important to elect people from the labor movement to public office." This SEIU leader then invited several other local politicians or their representatives to speak, calling them his 'political ammunition.'
"I'm here to show my support," said Rob Matzie, State Rep. (D). from the 16th District, which includes Aliquippa. "First of all, it needs to be said that this hospital's problems were in no way the fault of the caregivers, no way. Next, this goes deeper than Democrats and Republicans, this goes to what's right and what's wrong, and those who made these decisions are simply wrong." Representatives from the offices on Congressman Jason Altmire (D-4th CD), US Senator Bob Casey, and GOP State Rep Jim Christiana (15th District) also made supportive statements.
National AFL-CIO State Director for PA, Frank Synder, linked several threads of the rally together. He noted the presence of representatives of several unions at the rally, and their unity:
"We understand the labor movement here in Beaver County. We know why treating these workers unfairly is wrong. It's not just that this hospital was a gift to the county from the steelworkers, that unlike these hospital owners, they wanted to give something back. It's not that workers elsewhere don't share our problems. It's that in an important way, it all started here, in 1937, when the steelworkers took J&L steel all the way to the Supreme Court, and finally won, boosting the organizing of unions everywhere. That was our gift to the whole country. So the 13 million AFL-CIO members across the country, and the one million across the state, we'll stand with you. We've got your back. We have to turn this around."
At the close of the rally, Neil Bisno summed up the tasks ahead in four points: first, to carry on the legal battle to win for the workers what's due to them; second, to continue the publicity campaign to mobilize public pressure; third, to support the immediate needs of the workers, seeking benefits and new employment.
"But fourth and last, we want to see a rebirth. This is a fine facility, and it's needed. There has to be a way to reopen health care services here. We just have to find it."