HARTFORD, Conn. - The long-running conflict between almost 700 workers at five Connecticut nursing homes and their chain employer - a firm so nasty that the state's governor joined the workers' picket line last year - may be headed for the U.S. Supreme Court, even though two justices already bounced the chain's emergency request to let the company triumph.
That's because the chain, HealthBridge Management, is trying to turn the case into a struggle over whether the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) legally had the right and power to seek a court order returning the nursing home workers to their jobs. If the chain's management wins its legal point, it could keep the workers out.
Through all the legal ups and downs, the workers, members of SEIU Hospital and Health Care Workers 1199NE, are standing strong, says union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff. It hasn't been easy, though.
The case is important for workers nationwide. It questions whether the NLRB can even legally function. A federal appeals court in D.C. ruled in mid-January that Democratic President Barack Obama's three "recess" NLRB appointments - which he made after Senate GOP filibusters barred board nominees - were illegal.
That meant the board had no quorum. HealthBridge contends no quorum meant the board couldn't decide its case or demand it take the workers back.
And it says other firms are defying the NLRB, too, though it did not name them.
As for the workers, "They're not actually back on the job, yet," Chernoff says. "That's what HealthBridge is trying to prevent by going to the Supreme Court. An injunction" the NLRB sought and lower court judges OKd "would have put them back."
Meanwhile, the workers qualified for jobless benefits and they're also getting strike benefits from SEIU. "But it's been a long, cold winter for them, nevertheless," Chernoff comments. "And it's been a roller coaster ride that has taken its toll."
New Jersey-based HealthBridge forced almost 700 nurses and health care workers to strike last July. It imposed its demands after declaring an impasse in bargaining when they would not yield. Its takeaways would deprive the workers of decent wages and benefits, 1199NE says.
HealthBridge's conduct was such an exception to good relations between nursing home owners and 1199NE that Gov. Dan Malloy (D) openly demanded the firm reverse course and bargain in good faith. When it refused, he joined the picketers for a day.
The NLRB took HealthBridge to court. The legal wrangling - where the firm lost at every stage - produced an injunction ordering HealthBridge to take the workers back under the terms of their old contracts until bargaining produces new contracts. The return to work was supposed to occur on Feb. 5. It didn't.
Instead, HealthBridge asked U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who oversees emergency appeals from courts in New York and Connecticut, for an emergency order to let it keep the workers out. It charged some of them engaged in "medical sabotage" on their way out the door in July. On Feb. 4, Ginsburg refused.
HealthBridge then asked Justice Antonin Scalia to issue the order. He refused on Feb. 6. "If he says no, they (HealthBridge) will have no place to go, legally," Chernoff believes.
The firm contends the NLRB illegally approved going to court because the NLRB didn't have enough members to act. Its request to Ginsburg predicts the full Supreme Court would have to disentangle the whole mess, using its case, the D.C. case, or both.
"While employers across the country are openly defying final board adjudications of unfair labor practices, secure in the knowledge they may challenge those orders in a court sure to invalidate them, the coercive power of a court is being used to effectively foreclose HealthBridge's efforts to pursue the same constitutional challenge," it claimed.