Union activist sees new unity, new day for labor movement

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ST. LOUIS - On May 15, I was in the driver's seat of a mini-van with six nursing home workers. All were SEIU members I represent from three different nursing homes here in Saint Louis. We are one in a fleet of vehicles surging onto the parking lot of a local Wendy's. It has been an inspiring day of fast food strikes.

My members, along with hundreds of labor, community, faith and student allies, have arrived to show support to fast food workers organizing for $15-an hour and a union.

The energy in the van is through the roof!

Louise, sitting next to me, is a veteran activist and a seasoned shop steward. The five other union members are new and developing.

Debra admits to everybody this is the first action she's ever been to.

However, she asks a central question regarding worker rights and solidarity: "We are in a contract fight, maybe some of these people could help us picket our nursing home?"

Kay, another shop steward replies: "Think about it. Grand Manor [Nursing Home] is in a contract fight. Christian Care [Nursing Home] is in a fight. Northview Village [Nursing Home] is in a fight. Mary Ryder [Nursing Home] is about to start bargaining. If we all came to each other's pickets we would be an army!"

The side doors of the van fly open, and demonstrators pour out and surge into the Wendy's. In moments the lobby is full, demonstrators clog the dining area and cheer as the entire line of kitchen staff walk off the job.

Fast forward to Thursday, June 12.

The management at Christian Care Nursing Home has violated the National Labor Relations Act by denying and even disciplining workers wearing their union logo on their work apparel. Adding insult to injury, workers at Christian Care have only received a nickel raise in almost five years.

It's a gorgeous June afternoon and a handful of workers and union staff are walking the sidewalk in front of the facility. It's a little early, but everyone is eager to picket. It is almost time for shift change. A large stack of picket signs, all made by members the day before, waits patiently by the road.

A worker comes out of the facility, picks up a sign and exclaims, "The managers are giving out ice cream to keep people from coming out!" We all start laughing, but the tension is real.

There has never been an action at this nursing home, and for a moment we all wonder if we will be sold out because of some dilly bars.

Members start trickling out and filling in the missing ranks.

Suddenly, from the residential area across the street members of Jobs with Justice, the Missouri Homecare Union, and the United Food and Commercial Workers union file-in alongside those already marching. Fast-food workers round the corner with bullhorns blaring, "Christian Care, you can't hide. We can see your greed inside." Workers from other nursing homes arrive in solidarity, still wearing scrubs from their own shifts.

Within minutes, an impromptu parade makes its way across the entrance of Christian Care Nursing Home. We chant, "What do we want? A CONTRACT! When do we want it? NOW!"

Kay, one of the shop stewards, is on the bullhorn. She says, "There are residents inside in wheelchairs who wanted to come out and march with us. There are family members who wanted to bring them. Christian Care has never seen anything like this. Let me tell you, this is a new day at Christian Care!"

There is an old union adage: "Together we are what we can't be alone."

Labor and community organizations are re-learning an important lesson. We must not forget who our friends are.

The three fast food workers who walked off the job at Wendy's are vulnerable without our support, without hundreds of other workers chanting, "Come on out. We've got your back!" With that kind of support, management knows they are not alone.

Similarly, nursing home workers are vulnerable without the support of their brothers and sisters from different facilities, as well as broader community support - fast-food workers, clergy, other unions, etc.

It is in fact a new day, a new day for the labor movement!

Photo: Courtesy of Nicholas James.

Nicholas James is a collective bargaining rep for the Service Employees International Union.

 

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