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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Saturday, January 10, 2009

No Shame: Hospital Workers Robbed in Court

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."

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