they can do to improve job conditions. “Health care is a pretty hot industry now in terms of turmoil in the workforce,” he said. Though there have yet to be any serious efforts directed at organizing on a broader scale at the Medical Center, Richardson said he sees the unionization at the St. Anthony Center as a hopeful sign. “I fully expect it’ll lead to other things in time,” he said. THE SERVICE EMPLOYEE union, which Richardson described as “an extremely good union when it comes to organizing,” is establishing its base in Texas in the health care industry. The SEIU made a nationwide push in 1983 to unionize workers in the huge Beverly Enterprises nursing home chain, which has more than 100 facilities in Texas alone. Service Employees are now organized in nine Beverly homes around the state, mostly in the Gulf Coast and East Texas regions. The union also has a contract at Baptist Hospital in Beaumont and has organized three small nursing homes in that city. They claim a statewide membership of 1500 workers. But the St. Anthony campaign, which began last summer, presented a unique challenge. Twice before, workers had tried to unionize and had lost their elections, first in October of 1975 and again in June of 1977. Both efforts were led by the Teamsters union. The Service Employees’ eventual success ten years later is credited to that union’s track record in the healthrelated field and to the well-conceived campaign directed by SEIU organizer Judy Graves. Working out of an office that serves the two Service Employee locals that are active in Texas, Graves and her two organizers, Patricia Silva and Bill Sam, carefully laid the foundation over several months before filing last September for a union election. “I have a lot of respect for Judy Graves as an organizer,” said Bob Comeaux. “She has a knowledge of how to make things happen in the community. She understands what power is all about.” Don Horn of the Houston AFL-CIO said Graves “used a smart approach,” by preparing the workers thoroughly for the union campaign, rather than rushing in too quickly. Graves said she knew the St. Anthony administration would fight hard, as they had in the previous campaigns in the ’70s. The Sisters of Charity hired a management consultant, Bob Williams of Chicago, who union organizers say runs a “union busting company.” “He cut his teeth in the Teamsters campaign,” Graves said of Williams. “He knew the scene.” \(Williams’s Chicago number was available from St. Anthony’s personnel office, but he was unavailable for comment at Observer The union activists could not, at least at one point, resist drawing attention to the irony of the religious order’s opposition to the union. In a pamphlet announcing the union drive, the organizers wrote, “It is our hope that the Sisters of. Charity of the Incarnate Word will rejoice with us at this positive step for the betterment of St. Anthony’s.” They quoted from the American Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter which said, in part, “The Church fully supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions.” Graves expected management to play up the threat of strikes and the burdens of union dues; her strategy was to steer the discussion to issues such as job security and “having a voice on the job.” She recognized that the administration would make an issue of the 1985 Service Employee strike at the Schlesinger nursing home in Beaumont, a strike that divided the community and failed to bring improvements for workers. \(After two months on strike, the workers were ordered back to work and the dispute is currently mired in National Labor Relations about it,” Graves said of the Schlesinger strike, and when the company brought in employees from Beaumont to address a meeting of St. Anthony employees, prounion workers grilled the Beaumont workers and appeared to reject their conclusions. As the campaign heated up last fall, a core committee of 35 workers held frequent meetings to discuss “who’s with us and who’s not and who’s in between,” as Graves put it. Union sympathies rose as employees grew disenchanted with incidents of misunderstanding and poor communication between the staff and the administration. The leaked personnel memo about nurses at early retirement age contributed to the distrust. As Bobbi Roberts, an outspoken union activist put it in an interview in March, prounion workers argued that the administration too often failed to have the workers’ best interests at heart. “We tried to let [coworkers] know that management was how can I say this in a nice way? playin’ us off for fools.” Roberts said there was considerable sentiment that the largely black and female workforce was not given the respect they deserved. “They feel like they can treat you any old way,” she said. “Our main purpose with this union is getting these people to realize that we are human beings.” In the weeks before the vote the union released a letter from Houston Congressman Mickey Leland urging St. Anthony employees to vote for the union. “Forming unions has never been easy, and it certainly isn’t easy today,” Leland wrote. “I commend you for your strength and courage and look forward to hearing of your success.” St. Anthony administrators made a finalhour appeal to workers in a letter dated December 4. The Center’s administrator, Mike Sims, and Sisters of Charity Hospitals vice-president Raymond Khoury wrote that the St. Anthony Center is “fighting for survival in an uncertain future.” They admitted the Center had “suffered a breakdown in our relationship and communication between staff and management,” for which they apologized. “However, we believe there can be a NEW BEGINNING for the St. Anthony Center,” they wrote, urging workers to give them the chance to work together as a “real team.” Graves said she remembers thinking in the weeks before the vote, “We’re going to win, but it’s going to be close.” By a vote of 141-120, St. Anthony’s staff elected to join the union. IN SOME WAYS, that was the easy part. In February the Service Employees began bargaining with St. Anthony’s management to get a contract. “This is just a first step,” Graves said of the union election. “You can find union victories all over the country without the union getting a contract.” The negotiations could well stretch on for months, as union representatives sit across the table from a Fulbright & Jaworski lawyer representing the St. Anthony Center. With the economic constriction in private health care facilities, the union’s task is more difficult. It is hard to go on the offensive when the union already finds itself coping with staff layoffs. And one thing that makes preserving a contract so tenuous, especially in .the nursing home industry, is that the facilities frequently change hands. As long-time organizer Liz Kimmel says of Graves, “What she’s organizing is very difficult,” because she is working in a high turnover industry. When an institution is sold, she points out, “then you have to start from scratch with a new contract.” Nevertheless, union activists such as Bob Comeaux say that Service Employee-style victories in organizing are the best hope for the union movement. He would like to see more of an emphasis by labor on building its ranks, but he cautions against top-down organizing: “The whole problem with the Houston Organizing Project was that the AFL-CIO attempted to throw money and staff at a problem.” What labor should be doing, he said, is to use small teams of organizers who take the attitude “never do for people what they can do for themselves.” This type of emphasis on “empowerment” of the workers, he said, “has been downplayed to a great extent in the labor movement, unfortunately.” Comeaux says union drives are most successful when they have their roots in a cohesive community and have wider community support. In that respect, Houston may not yet offer the most fertile ground. But for now, several dozen nurses and nursing assistants among the thousands at the Texas Medical Center are acting on hope, not resignation. As Doug Richardson of the Triangle Organizing Project sees it, the Service Employees “proved that you can still organize in Houston.” THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15
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