A year from now, contracts covering 117,000 1199SEIU workers in New York State are set to expire. But President Dennis Rivera is telling us to vote to reopen the current contract now. He is telling us to vote for a deal that would extend through April 30, 2008. This means giving up the ability to prepare to strike for a good contract and instead settling for a really bad contract without a fight. The contract proposal Rivera is pushing includes wage givebacks, Pension Funds cuts, and insufficient protection against layoffs to say the least. Make no mistake, the contract re-opener and extension he is proposing now is a disaster. Fortunately the membership can vote it down and we must.
Just a short time ago an 1199 brochure was distributed to members proclaiming the importance of the strike weapon in gearing up for a contract fight next year. It said
“ …we have one essential weapon in our arsenal we have never had before – a statewide membership, with a common expiration date on the contracts of 117,000 workers. If our employers threaten our jobs and the security of our families, we may be forced to strike to defend ourselves. In any case we need to be at maximum strength, with all of our members mobilized.” (“The Health Care Crisis Is Coming Home”)
But Rivera only spent a few months flirting with talk of a genuine mobilization, even though it was exactly what is needed. He now wants to fold without the promised fight even getting started! This deal means a bad settlement for over 70,000 workers right now, and then dealing with over 40,000 member separately; those are members who do not work for League institutions but whose contract expires at the same time. The achievement of a common expiration date, and therefore a common strike threat, was being touted before. It is now being petered away.
1199 literature mailed to members to push this contract proposal has the gall to claim that “The Union gave nothing back from the present contract.” It also brags that 1199ers have “no out-of-pocket expenses” for health care while other unions do. Yet it also says “We got this contract and secured these benefits because of our initiative to transfer one percent of this year’s annual raise to the National Benefit Fund.” What it doesn’t want to spell out, among other things, is that this one percent that we are giving back to the bosses means that over four years workers are giving back to the bosses over 200 million dollars toward our health care and other benefits, money that could have otherwise gone into our pockets. If that is not just another kind of “out-of-pocket” expense, then what is?
The truth is that Rivera believes that 1199 workers should give back over $200 million dollars. He wants to help out the bosses who have not met their contractual obligation to pay into our benefit fund, in the case of more than ten institutions who are deeply delinquent, including Brookdale University Hospital, Jamaica Hospital and North General. They simply stopped paying into the fund for workers – and now our own union leader says we should bail them out – and help out the entire League of Hospitals and Nursing Homes, so that they don’t have to pay so much into our Funds. As Rivera told the New York Times, “We have a strategic objective of trying to keep the health benefit fund solvent and solid and not requiring a large contribution by the employers.” (“Health Union To Give Up Part of a Raise,” May 8, 2004)
The amount currently owed into the Benefit Fund is over $100 million dollars. According to Rivera, we should conclude that it is the workers that, once again, should pay for the health care crisis that management has created. We should give the bosses back $200 million dollars? That is what Rivera is really saying. And it is 200 percent wrong.
If we accept the notion that workers should sacrifice part of the raise we had already won, things will only get worse. In fact, accepting such a giveback would mean that the contract we already negotiated, which was the contract that promised us a four percent raise this June, wasn’t worth the paper it was written on!
It would prove that when the bosses violated a legal contract by crying poverty, the tactic worked to get more out of us. If we go back on insisting that they carry out their commitments in the contract we already won in 2001, if we bail the hospital bosses out by giving back part of a raise we already sweated for, why should management treat the new contract any more seriously? What is to stop them from expecting more givebacks at our expense next time they cry poverty? Absolutely nothing.
If you give the bosses an inch, they take a mile. And this “1%” giveback is more than an inch. That is why it would be such a terrible setback, setting a precedent for the future in addition to the immediate damage.
Another big problem about Rivera’s proposal is also cited in the same New York Times Article. The article states, “In another twist, the new agreement will help the hospitals and nursing homes finance the increase in health insurance contributions by providing a $260 million savings over four years on pension contributions. To achieve these savings, the union agreed to let the health care institutions base their pension contributions on a different formula.”
There are indeed indications in the Memorandum of Agreement that the Pension Fund will be toyed with. (We have not seen the side agreements that go with this deal.) The net effect is that we are also giving up money that would have gone for our Pension Fund. Why doesn’t Rivera spell it out, there will be less money for some of our workers facing retirement as a result of this!
In the past, militant strikes, and other mass actions by workers, have forced management to come up with the money – both in 1199 hospitals and other institutions that have tried the same game. But the bosses will only find the ways to provide for us if they are forced to. Where there are hospitals and homes truly incapable of staying afloat without cutting into our raises and funds, then they must demand more money from the state. But in the case of a number of well-known medical empires that dominate the system, such as Montefiore Medical Center or NYU Medical Center, we suspect that these bosses have many ways to shift around resources in order to allocate more money that workers deserve and have earned. Whatever immediate solution is posed, the fact is that if the union successfully re-opens the current contract to give back part of our raise, if they also can change formulas and shift money around normally due to the Pension Fund, if they know they didn’t really have to abide by the agreement in effect, the next one will be just as worthless.
Once again, it can not be overemphasized. This kind of giveback which Rivera is pushing now is absolutely unprecedented. “I’ve never heard of any other employee group willing to reduce its salary like this to help out on health-care costs,” said Bruce McIver, president of the hospital group, the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes.” (New York Times, May 8, 2004) Adding insult to injury, the same NY Times article also reported that Rivera plans to work with McIver “to persuade Gov. George E Pataki and the State Legislature to approve a $1 billion state bond to help hospitals install new medical and information technologies.” Well, apparently Rivera can hold hands with McIver to get new funds for the hospitals, but he can’t fight to preserve what we already won!
In addition to re-opening the current contract to give back some of our raise, there is more. Rivera is proposing to give away our ability to negotiate and strike if necessary in May 2005 by signing a long term deal now. As part of the deal, he is bragging that 75% of members will have protection against layoffs. But that means he is bragging that 25 per cent of 1199ers will have no protection against layoffs. This is happening at a time when 1199ers proved in a union poll that layoffs are the utmost concern for all of us.
In the last year, several hospitals, nursing homes and health care agencies have shut down. More are threatened with closure making protection against layoffs vital. But it is false to claim that a piece of paper will stop layoffs. Especially one which actually allows layoffs in case of “financial crisis” or “hospital closures.” That is what the clause says.
Here’s a question for Rivera then. When exactly does he think that layoffs take place? Answer: when the bosses close hospitals or cite a financial crisis!
Also, Rivera’s “only some layoffs clause” claims to protect higher seniority workers. But that means dividing the union which can only have disastrous consequences. And of course layoffs also weaken the position of those older workers that do remain – they have to do the job of two or three employees. It is also true that the protection even for higher seniority workers goes out the window when a workplace shuts down. And when re-employed elsewhere, the worker loses his or her former status and past seniority protection to boot.
The only answer for workers who are being threatened with layoffs now, who are being threatened with loss of benefits now due to the bosses’ delinquency in payment, is to start mobilizing the members in mass demonstrations and rallies. That is the way to launch a fight back. When 1199 mobilized busses from all boroughs of New York City to support workers at St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital in Newburgh recently, that was a step in the right direction. That fight must go further but it must be joined to a fight for all New York workers, including workers in New York City that are under the gun at hospitals and nursing homes, as well as the beleaguered home health aides. With united action of all of us, there is strength.
Masses of workers in 1199 need a powerful mobilization of the union’s resources, now more than ever. We need more employer contributions, not less, On top of this, a solid raise is clearly needed by all health care workers. All of this means that we can’t possibly win what we need from the bosses without preparing for a serious fight. Rivera is pushing concessions that threaten our job security and economic needs, present and future. Equally repugnant, he is misrepresenting the deal in order to push it through. This contract re-opener and extension can and must be defeated.
Rivera points to the givebacks being proposed in the current DC 37 contract proposal for city workers to prove that the 1199 contract is good by comparison. The DC 37 contract proposal is a sellout but it has not yet been accepted by the membership. DC 37 leaders are telling city workers that it is the best contract they can get and that they should take it. Rivera is telling us that his sellout contract, which is not quite as bad as the DC 37 contract, is the best we can get and that we should take it. There are already stirring of oppositions in some locals of DC 37. Imagine what would happen if over 100,000 1199 members and over 100,000 DC 37 members were fighting for decent contracts for a change.
Two wrongs never make a right. A sellout contract in one union can not be used to justify a sellout contract in 1199. 1199 workers are in a powerful position. We can fight for a turnaround in the concessionary trend affecting all workers. That is what needs to be done.
As revolutionary socialists, workers joined together in the League for the Revolutionary Party ( LRP) have been active over the years in various unions fighting the pro-capitalist union leaders like Dennis Rivera. We fight against the notion that the working class must continue losing ground in order to help out the bosses and their profit-making capitalist system. Workers are seeing their health care benefits and pay packets cut. Now it’s at the point that health care workers can’t get decent health care themselves. The so-called “voluntary” hospitals in New York are very much a part of this profit system. If the hospitals and nursing homes and other agencies can’t provide decent health care and pay decent wages and benefits to the workforce, then we as revolutionary socialists would argue that it is time to fight for a nationalized health care system. The very notion that such a basic human need as health care should be doled out on a profit-making basis, that people can live or die dependent on their ability to pay for good care or not, shows how sick the system truly is.
As we see it, the fight for nationalized health care should become part of the fight against capitalism, which is perpetrating racism and anti-worker attacks at home, and imperialist atrocities abroad. We believe that only when capitalism is overturned through socialist revolution, can the working class finally secure the living standards, health care, and other human necessities for all of us.
Whether or not you are convinced of all of our views, we can and should unite now to stop Rivera’s proposal. It makes complete sense that health care workers should lead the fight against hospital cutbacks and closing, as well as play a leading role in the fight to defend the New York working class and unions against attacks. We can expect positive support from the rest of the working class if we force our leadership to do so.