Sometimes a small event can have outsize consequences. In the 1950’s, an African-American woman in a small southern city refused to give up her seat to a white person and sparked the Civil Rights Movement. In Tunisia earlier this year, a previously unknown merchant set himself on fire to protest government malfeasance and started a revolution that is still sending shockwaves throughout the Middle East.
I met some workers today who may not have the same international impact as the examples I cited above, but they certainly have their courage.
Last year, healthcare workers at Broomall Presbyterian Village voted to form a union at their nursing home. But in that year, their church-related employer has done everything they can do to bust their union, using tactics one would expect from notoriously anti-worker corporations like Wal-Mart. The workers, represented by Service Employees International Union Healthcare PA, have worked for this period without a contract.
The Presbyterians have not negotiated in good faith, offering the newly unionized workers a contract which gives them even less money than their not-yet-union co-workers. The Presbyterians have also proposed cutting the union employees retirement plan below what is being offered to other, not-yet-union employees. In the meantime, these low-wage workers have not had a raise in over two years. The
Presbyterians have even hired a union-busting law firm to manage their campaign against the low wage workers.
Things have gotten so bad that charges were filed against the employer with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the Presbyterians are retaliating against workers for forming a union.
Today, the workers took the very tough step of going out on strike. Striking is always a difficult decision, but it is even harder when the workers are barely eking out a living. When low wage workers go out on strike, the situation has to be extremely dire because they have no safety net. Missing even one day's pay can mean a family could lose their home.
“We didn’t want to go on strike, but we need to stand up for ourselves and our residents,” said Sandra Hutson, a certified nursing aide (CNA) who has worked at Broomall Presbyterian for six years. “Management is trying to punish us for forming a union, when all we want is to be able to support our families and improve the quality of care we provide our residents.”
This anti-union campaign is being led by Judee Bavaria, the CEO of the Presby’s Inspired Life. Broomall Presbyterian is owned by Presby’s Inspired Life, a nonprofit which describes itself as “a regional leader in senior living, providing continuing care and affordable housing to more than 2,600 residents in 25 communities through the dedicated, compassionate work of nearly 1,100 employees.”
Why is Bavaria attacking low wage workers? It doesn’t make sense, especially when her church has a reputation for standing up for workers.
Is it a case of standing up for middle class workers (like the state employees in Wisconsin), but ignoring the concerns of the working poor? The workers at Broomall Presbyterian are mostly people of color, largely immigrant and almost all are women. And, as you might expect, they are the lowest paid workers at the nursing home.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly has a Statement on Labor Relations that strongly affirms the right of workers to organize. It states, in part, "Justice
demands that social institutions guarantee all persons the opportunity to participate actively in economic decision making that affects them. All workers ... have the right to choose to organize for the purposes of collective bargaining."1
The PCUSA reaffirmed that stance in March, 2011 in reaction to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attack on workers, saying “As Presbyterians we base the rights of all workers, corporations and governments in a doctrine of covenant or mutual accountability that undergirds all contracts and includes our social contract in the United States. We share with many people of faith the conviction that collective bargaining is a concrete measure by which burdens and benefits are shared in a manner deeply consistent with both our faith and our democratic values.”2
The Presbyterians talk a good game, but their actions at Broomall Presbyterian do not match their words.
The workers at Broomall Presbyterian have made a courageous choice to stand up and stand together for justice. Now the Presbyterians have a clear choice to make. Will they be on the side of justice so eloquently proclaimed in their statements? Or will they join the ranks of Scott Walker, Tom Corbett and Glenn Beck in vilifying workers and exploiting low-income workers?
History, and higher authorities, will be their judge.
1 Presbyterian Church (USA) Selected Social Witness Policies on Work as Vocation, Unions and Collective Bargaining
2PCUSA Stated clerk backs public employees’ collective bargaining rights