BRONX, N.Y. — It looked like a river of purple and yellow winding its way through the streets of the Bronx May 3. It was, in fact, the striking workers at the Kingsbridge Heights Nursing Home and their supporters from Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts and Canada — 10,000 workers wearing their SEIU union colors.
The massive show of support for the strikers came as their struggle to get the nursing home owner, Helen Sieger, to sign a contract enters its sixth year.
In addition to refusing to sign a contract, Sieger did away with health care for the workers and their families in 2007. Union members, who began their strike on Feb. 20, have subsisted on a strike and benefit fund that allots them $250 per week and on food donations.
Sieger has used every means at her disposal to get rid of the union, but the workers have stood their ground. The picket line began on one corner of this Bronx neighborhood slowly winding its way around to the nursing home, which appeared to be tightly locked and guarded, and passed several private homes where people were waving and hanging signs of support from balconies.
A striker said that large numbers of patients are being removed from the nursing home by their families because of the unsafe conditions. He told me that there had been three deaths in the last two months because of negligence. The services declined as Sieger hired increasing numbers of scabs, many of whom are actually living at the nursing home.
As the line of marchers turned onto 238th Street, a policeman standing near the corner said that he empathized with the strikers because his union had been without a contract for four years.
The march came to its rallying point at Ft. Independence Park adjacent to the playground where a stage with a three-piece band was playing upbeat music to the chants of “Enough is enough” and “The people united will never be defeated.”
The strike is also supported by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), New York City Council President Christine Quinn, New York State Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), all of whom spoke to the marchers.
The speakers assured the marchers that the attorney general is about to bring Sieger up on various charges. The marchers also want the New York State health commissioner to pursue a state takeover of the nursing home. The National Labor Relations Board has ruled against Sieger for her refusal to negotiate a contract but many workers feel the wheels of justice are moving too slowly.
On May 12, the strike lost one of its leaders, Audrey Campbell. Because of the strike Campbell wasn’t getting daily medications she needed for asthma and had to leave the picket line for the emergency room. She died on the way to the hospital.
An online article printed by SEIU Local 1199 in New York read:
“Although Audrey had asthma, her co-workers say she never missed a beat on the job or on the picket line. She told everyone she was not fighting for herself, but for her patients, and for the rights of health care workers everywhere, not only for today, but also for tomorrow. Audrey’s absence is notable on the picket line. The strikers nod their heads and say, ‘We’ll stay out for however long it takes to win this.’ That’s what Audrey wanted.”