Denied a contract for 5 years, workers walk out
Winning a union election is frequently the end of a long battle. But for many workers it's also just the first step to getting a voice on the job. Workers at Beverly Farm, a home for developmentally disabled in Godfrey, Illinois, voted in their union in 1994. Since then they have had to wage a five year struggle just to get a first contract. In July, having exhausted other possibilities for winning a fair contract, the workers voted to strike.
I talked to Beverly Farm workers on the picket line in August. I was in Illinois as one of five interns who helped out with the strike for a few weeks, as part the AFL-CIO's Union Summer program. We left knowing a lot more about the struggle to get democracy on the job, and the dedication people are willing to put in to see it through.
The average pay at Beverly Farm is $5.85/hour, the lowest of any similar facility in Illinois. Because of this, the facility experiences very high turnover. "We need to be paid enough so that we can afford to keep working at Beverly Farm," said Sarah Bramlet, a striker. "It's difficult to provide a high standard of care when most of the employees are short-timers or temporaries."
Those who stay are not rewarded. I talked to staff who worked there for 14 years were still making just over $6. Beverly Farm, a private nonprofit, gets 80% of its funds from the State of Illinois. In turn they provide residential care and developmental training for 400 adults. Recently, a lot of that money has been going into legal fees trying to keep the union out.
AFSCME District Council 31, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, has put a lot of resources into the strike because management's behavior has been so outrageous. "This is one of the worst we've seen," said Henry Bayer, executive director of the Council, which represents 75,000 workers in Illinois. The union wants other employers to know that if they try to push workers around like they have at Beverly Farm, they will have a huge fight on their hands.
Justice deferred is justice denied
Only about 25 percent of private-sector unions certified in 1996 were able to negotiate a first labor agreement within a twelve-month period, according a recent study by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The Beverly Farm struggle for a fair contract is an extreme case of this pattern. The workers voted 274 to 47 to have a union on June 17, 1994 . After a year of managment stalling and negotiations, the workers voted down managment's "last, best, final" offer 191 to 1.
The union objected that the employer was not bargaining in good faith, and filed charges before the National Labor Relations Board. After lengthy court proceedings, the courts found the employer guilty of numerous unfair labor practices, including refusing to bargain and unilaterally implementing changes in terms of employment without bargaining. After Beverly Farm persisted in these violations, the Federal District Court in East St. Louis took the unusual action of issuing an injunction to stop Beverly Farm from continuing to engage in these illegal activities.
Beverly Farm executive director Monte Welker was becoming known as the 'Babe Ruth of labor law violations.' Then, after numerous appeals and stalling by Beverly Farm, in 1998 the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered Beverly Farm to resume negotiations. Management continued to stall. They wouldn't even give raises with money appropriated by the legislature for this purpose-they proposed a scheme whereby management got much of the raise. The union said with the money the legislature had appropriated, every non-management employee could get a 65 cent raise.
After 5 years of frustration, and feeling that they'd exhausted every other option, workers faced another imposition of a "last, best, final" offer from management, this one refusing to recognize the union. In response, the workers voted to strike on July 9. "The democratic principles included in the American ideal provide for the will of the majority," said the Reverend Jesse Jackson in a statement in support of the strike. Jackson urged management to negotiate in good faith.
After the strike management threatened to replace the workers who went out on strike. Workers were told they would not receive their health insurance, and according to the workers, they were lied to and told that their strike benefits, $160 a week, would have to be paid back to the union after the strike. Welker denies that management said this.
Temps used to replace strikers
Beverly Farm was already in hot water with the Illinois Department of Public Health for using too many temporary workers. After the strike started, Welker hired in even more temps, paying $15 an hour-sometimes more-to profit-making agencies. "They'll pay an agency $15 an hour but they won't give us a 65 cent raise," one striker told a call-in radio show.
Rehab Care, Inc., a temp agency with offices in St. Louis, supplies temporary workers at Beverly Farm. The leaders of Rehab Care, a for-profit, pull down as much as 1.5 million a year. "You can't have $1.5 million going to one family and workers making $5 an hour," Jesse Jackson told reporters at a press conference in front of Rehab Care offices on August 26. "It's un-American, it's immoral."
Temporary workers do not have as strong an interest in making things better at a workplace because they will only be there for a short time. So it is hard to convince them not to cross the picket line. But crossing a picket line, and the working conditions-including little training and very understaffed conditions-make even some temp workers refuse to go back. Five women who were hired by an East St. Louis temp agency were bussed across the picket line into Beverly Farm early one morning but walked out to talk to the pickets just an hour later, looking for a ride home. They had not been told they would be strikebreakers, and were not at all happy with the idea.
Speaking at the August 26 rally, striker Linda Thoman summed up the strike, "Better pay means better quality staff, less turnover, and better residents' care. Sixty five cents isn't going to make us rich, but it'll make us a lot less poor." But, she added, "This strike is not about money; it's about the union. This strike will end with a fair contract. We will not end this strike till we get it."
At this writing, the strike continues at Beverly Farm. And labor law violators like Monte Welker continue to get many more than three strikes before they're out.
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