Now Comes the Reckoning: Black Lives Matter Hits the Labor Movement

By the end of July 2020 nursing home work had become the most dangerous job in the country, with more than double the fatality rate of the next most dangerous occupation--logging. (Photo: Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Now Comes the Reckoning: Black Lives Matter Hits the Labor Movement

Dispatch from the front lines of the war on caregivers.

In the second round of contract negotiations, conducted over Zoom, the nursing home company has a proposal for roughly 1,000 Connecticut nursing home workers: a $500 bonus by way of acknowledging all they endured during the pandemic.

All they endured: Suffice it to say that by the end of July nursing home work had become the most dangerous job in the country, with more than double the fatality rate of the next most dangerous occupation--logging.[1] All told, SEIU 1199NE, the union representing the nursing home workers, lost 22 members to Covid. Nursing home workers themselves, meanwhile, lost 600[2] nursing home residents--people they knew intimately, and in many cases had cared for for years. As one nursing home worker put it to me, "Just watching that, patient after patient after patient dying, mentally that does something to you, because that's not normal."

Raising the hourly pay to $20 for certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and $30 for licensed practical nurses (LPNs) was the union's top priority.

Compounding the trauma were the widely reported PPE shortages, chronic understaffing, and of course poverty wages. Most nursing home workers made less than $15 an hour. The pay was so low that many new hires left after the first day and went to get a job at Amazon, or McDonald's, where the pay was equivalent or better and working intimately with people suffering from a deadly virus was not part of the job description.

Raising the hourly pay to $20 for certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and $30 for licensed practical nurses (LPNs) was the union's top priority. This would at least help retain new hires, and allow staff to work one or two jobs instead of three.

The company's counter-offer, therefore, of a one-time $500 payment (as much as the company's CEO earned in 20 minutes[3]) was met with something less than full-throated enthusiasm--particularly as the money didn't even come from company coffers, but rather from the state. The company itself offered nothing.

Even more insulting was that the bonus was only available to "direct care workers." The laundry workers, dietary workers and housekeeping staff, all of whom regularly came into contact with residents throughout the pandemic, and (given the chronic understaffing) routinely helped with their care, were offered even less.

Jesse Martin, the negotiator for the union, asks the obvious question:

"How are you justifying paying the non-direct care staff less of a bonus than everyone else?"

The company lawyer is a jowly white guy in his early 70s. "Because that's what the state allocated," he says.

Martin follows up, wondering how it is that the company somehow can't find any money to compensate its predominantly black and brown workforce when just four months earlier the white CEO received a multi-million dollar bonus.

"You have our proposal," the lawyer replies.

And that's that. Take it or leave it, and no apologies. The brazen unfairness is infuriating, but at the same time not surprising. For it's the kind of unfairness workers live with every day, such that it can sometimes become almost unnoticeable.

There doesn't seem to be much else to say. Yet Martin keeps at it.

"So the answer is no. Can you tell me then, did you find their services to be lacking in some way in the last year? Did you find that housekeepers didn't do a good enough job and therefore don't deserve the same bonus that the other workers get?"

Silence from the lawyer. He's looking down, sharing his bald spot with us, pretending to write something. The bald spot looks tanned. During the pandemic, when workers were being denied vacation time and made to work double shifts, pictures appeared on a top executive's Facebook page showing him on vacation in Aruba.

"Or you just don't want to spend a lick of your own damn money on workers. Because you will spend your money on executives. How much money did you spend on executive bonuses here in the state of Connecticut? Do you know?"

Martin's tone is getting aggressive. You're not supposed to talk like this to the boss. Besides, what possible good could it do? It's not like a company with a $70 million market cap is going to suddenly see the error of its ways and start treating its workers with a due measure of respect.

But what the company would prefer may no longer matter, for Black Lives Matter has changed the paradigm, not just for communities oppressed by the police, but for workers, too. Particularly as these negotiations are not taking place behind closed doors. They are open to any worker covered by the contract. And with 170 predominantly black and brown workers also on the call, the time for playing nice with corporate interests may be coming to an end.

Conducting open negotiations is not easy, which may be one reason unions have been slow to embrace it. Having workers in the room introduces an additional layer of uncertainty. You don't always know which way the conversation's going to turn.

The key, says Martin, is to speak to what workers care about. Then they can hear for themselves how the company responds. In the last round of negotiations, for instance, the union offered a package of racial justice proposals. Among these was a proposal that addressed the disturbing frequency with which nursing home administrators called the police on their own workforce.

"We all know," the lawyer says now, "that there are situations where it is necessary, in fact legally required, that the administrators notify the police of potential abuse issues, and things like that."

Martin weighs this, rocking back in his chair.

"So you've never heard," he says, "of administrators threatening to call the cops on workers who go to the administrator's office to, let's say, complain about the terrible staffing? In my last 10 years, there have been several times when the administrators have done that. You don't want to commit to training your management on how to interact with workers without calling the cops?"

"Well, there could be other situations where it would be appropriate to call--"

"I know members on this call have been threatened personally," Martin continues, "because the predominantly white management that runs all your nursing homes regularly uses the threat of police. I hope you can understand that threatening the cops on a predominantly female and black and brown and white working class workforce is actually a threat to their safety. Do you think that's appropriate as their employer to do that?"

"I cannot get into every situation where it is appropriate and where it isn't appropriate," the lawyer says.

And here again Martin might have dropped it. But, whether the lawyer realizes it or not, this exchange is playing out on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter movement, and he is on the wrong side.

"I'm asking about the example I gave you," Martin says. "There's a group of workers, 10 CNAs. They're upset by the lack of staffing. They go to their administrator. They say, I'd like to meet with you, the staffing here is terrible, our residents aren't getting care. And the administrator's response is, Get out of my office, and I'm calling the cops on you."

"I would agree that's not appropriate," the lawyer says.

He is a bit out of his depth. He is not accustomed to these sorts of questions, or this kind of pushback. He may well be a rich, privileged white guy, and totally unfamiliar with the actual lived experience of black and brown people, but the upside is that when maneuvered into this terrain he becomes surprisingly manageable. Martin doesn't hesitate to take advantage of this.

"So why does your company not want to put in the contract that those kinds of actions are inappropriate? We'd love to see a proposal, because that happens all. The. Time. All the time. I've witnessed it personally. But you don't want to commit to changing that aspect of your management's behavior?"

The lawyer shrugs. "The example you gave, I agree, it was not appropriate," he says. "If people are acting in a calm manner, they're not taking time away from their work--"

"Is taking time away from work a reason to call the cops?" Martin says.

"Well if the administrator said go back to--"

"Is it a reason to call the cops, if someone is coming off their unit to ask their administrator a question?"

"No, of course not."

"Is it a reason to call the cops if a worker is speaking with conviction? The administrator may not like the tone. They may not find it respectful. But neither are unsafe staffing conditions respectful--to the residents or the workers. But those are reasons you think it's okay to call the cops on workers?"

"I didn't say that."

"Well, I'm asking you. Is it?"

"No, if the worker is acting respectfully--"

"No, I'm not saying they're acting respectfully," Martin says, leaning forward now, pushing into the screen. "Why would they have to act respectfully? What is against law about acting disrespectfully?"

The lawyer is totally bewildered. The bigger picture is unavailable to him, so to him the aggressive questioning makes no sense. But to the 170 workers watching, it makes a great deal of sense.

"It's like dogs chasing tails here with these hypotheticals," the lawyer tries, smiling feebly.

"No, I'm trying to understand your proposal, because our members deal with these scenarios every day. Yesterday, at------, a group of workers went to talk to the administrator and he slammed the door in their face. That's disrespect. Should the workers call the cops on the administrator? If disrespect is the level to which you authorize your management to call the cops, and threaten the lives of black and brown caregivers in our facilities, then I'd like to know what the threshold should be for the union to call the cops on the predominantly white and male management."

By this point the nursing home workers are all glued to their screens, listening avidly.

Is this negotiating? The lawyer doesn't think so. And maybe it isn't. Maybe it's theater, theater with a purpose. But this is the question: Who's to say what negotiating should be? Why should the workers defer to the boss's expectation? Doubtless, the boss would prefer a more courteous exchange, but on a tilted playing field who does the courtesy most serve?

Martin encourages the workers not to defer. In doing so he creates opportunities for wins that don't even show up on the boss's scorecard. Even if the workers don't win the police proposal, for instance, they have already won something else--three things, actually--that in the longer run may prove infinitely more valuable: 1. a painful clarity that the company is intentionally structured to privilege its lighter-skinned executives at the expense of the darker-skinned workers; 2. an even more painful clarity that the company regards this as the natural order, takes for granted that it has the right to enforce this order, and assumes the workers will accept it without question. And finally 3., the greatest realization of them all: that actually the workers need not accept it. In fact, if they so choose, they can tell the company to go to hell.

You can tell when this hits home, because the workers start speaking up.

"I guarantee you this," says one CNA. "Everyone on this call--housekeeping, laundry, dietary--everybody better get that $500."

"I worked through Covid," says a cook. "I got Covid while I was there. I've been treated as if I was a disposable human being."

"Stop & Shop employees are getting way better treatment than us," another CNA says.

"You received Medicaid increases in November, December, January and February," Martin puts in. "Where did that money go?"

"They paid their administrators to stay in hotels during Covid, that's where it went."

"And bonuses, more bonuses."

"When we had to go home and give it to our families."

"How the hell do you guys sleep at night?"

The voices come one after another, overlapping, increasing in fury, unleashing all the horror and outrage of what they endured during the pandemic. About two hours in it reaches a crescendo when the lawyer tries to claim that the workers never lacked PPE.

"I'm not willing to jeopardize my family again for a company that is not willing to do anything for me," a nurse says. "Like you're sitting there in your nice fancy office, with your nice fancy clothes, and living a comfortable life, while we gotta struggle, go to work, take care of our patients. Begging us not to let them die. And there's nothing we can do about it. And then we gotta go back home to our families with our young children, our parents, our spouses, whoever we're taking care of, and hope that we don't infect them. Do you know how it feels to go into your job and you don't even know if you're gonna get the N95 that day? And then you got to go up on the floor with a bunch of Covid patients, elderly people that you've taken care of for years, and watch them die? Because these patients don't see their families, they don't hear from nobody but us. The nurses, the CNAs, we are the ones who were there. We're the ones who had to hold their hands and talk them through it. We were everything. We're not just a nurse, we're not just a CNA, we're not just a housekeeper, we're not just dietary. We were everything."

Three weeks ago the nursing home workers of SEIU 1199NE held a strike vote. At that point the nursing home companies were saying the workers deserved nothing. The governor of the state, which provided the bulk of the funding for the nursing homes, was saying the same. But the workers knew that this was not true. They knew what they deserved. And they were not going to let anyone else tell them what this was. You could see this reflected in the strike vote results. Those in favor: 98%.

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