Union, community, solidarity: ‘When we fight, we win’
By TIM ROWDEN
On Dec. 1, 2017, SEIU Healthcare members employed by Christian Care Home in Ferguson, MO, went on strike in the dead of winter, with the holidays approaching, to demand a fair contract and respect on the job.
Some 95 full-time and part-time nursing assistants, dietary workers, housekeepers, laundry workers, maintenance workers, activities coordinators, housekeepers and others – most of them African American women – walked out, citing unfair labor practices, after contract negotiations with the Christian Woman’s Benevolent Association, which manages the home, broke down.
It took 104 days, but the workers were able to settle with management on a favorable contract providing for wage increases, fair provisions for health insurance coverage, seniority protection and prompt payouts of Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) and grievance settlements.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the Missouri Jobs with Justice Workers’ Rights Board held recently at Sheet Metal Workers Local 36, union steward and certified nursing assistant Brenda Davis shared the story of the strike and how support from SEIU, fellow union members, the St. Louis Labor Council’s “$5 for the Fight” Fund, Jobs with Justice, the United Way, Greater St. Mark Family Church, and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists helped striking workers endure and propelled them to victory.
“We had to take on the strike,” Davis said. “We had new managers that came in our administration department, and they just totally refused to respect our union and respect our contract that we had worked so hard to put together. It became unbearable to the point where we were just fed up. We had to take a stand.”
SUPPORT OF UNION AND LIKE-MINDED GROUPS
“The strike fund couldn’t give us everything we had when we were at work,” Davis said, “but it almost did. We had insurance and, after being out for 30 days, when our insurance lapsed our union got us the resources to sign us up for anything that some of the members were qualified for. And if they weren’t qualified, they paid our COBRA (continuation of health coverage).
“Whatever we needed for our utility bills, they reached out to United Way. We even had one of our allies take his hat off and take up an offering of over $500 just to help us. People put money into our $5 for the Fight Fund.”
Those same groups, along with Missouri State Representatives Bruce Franks Jr. (D-St. Louis), Cora Faith Walker (D-Ferguson) and others, joined the Christian Care Home workers on the strike line, in the bitter cold, to show their solidarity in the fight.
That shared struggle between groups and across the causes of is called “intersectionality” – the that your fight is my fight, and my fight is your fight – and it was the theme of last week’s breakfast, which focused on the intersecting struggles of work, race and gender.
Throughout the Christian Care Home struggle, Davis said, “We got connected with so many leaders and members and unions, everybody pulled together to support our strike.”
That solidarity came full circle last summer, during the fight to defeat so-called “right-to-work” Prop A on the August ballot.
Davis and other workers at Christian Care Home, joined in the campaign to defeat Prop A, which was defeated by an overwhelming two-to-one margin on Aug. 7.
“Everything I just told you, we wouldn’t have been able to have that, we wouldn’t have been able to do that if Prop A had passed,” she said. “We wouldn’t have had the resources to organize, to bargain.”
‘WHEN WE FIGHT, WE WIN!’
“On March 19, when we all walked back in after they told us we were fired, that we were never going to make it, that we were stupid, I was so happy,” Davis said.
“I work in a nursing home as a CNA. Which, if you do any research, you know that’s not a very high paying position. A lot of people said ‘I just don’t see with the pay you all got, the things that you’re fighting for,’ but it meant so much to us,” Davis said. “It may not have been a $30-an-hour job, it may not have been $15-an-hour, but it was what we worked for.
“I’m a strong advocate for working rights, and I am so happy and so proud that I have been there. Christian Care Home was the fight of my life. It was a fight. I felt like I was in the Army. Every time I feel my knee hurting, I know it was from the cold weather that I had to endure, but it’s all right with me and I feel good about it. Because when we fight, we win!”