The union and management sign the contract. Photo: LeagueVictory_fa.

The union and management sign the contract. Photo: LeagueVictory_fa.

Across New York City, hospital and nursing home workers are holding elections to ratify a new three year collective bargaining agreement which will cover over 112,000 healthcare workers in 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East who work in League of Voluntary Hospital institutions. After two long months of bargaining, the union came to a tentative agreement with management just before a midnight deadline on July 13.

The new agreement protects healthcare benefits, childcare benefits, education fund benefits, raises salaries 3 percent a year, thwarts a management plan to bypass the union with temp workers and subcontracting, pushes back a management assault on technical and professional workers and protects the pensions of union members.

The struggle to protect the pension fund

The greatest struggle was around protecting the union member’s pension fund. From the start, hospital management demanded serious cuts to the pension benefits, claiming they were broke, and that the pension fund had suffered major losses during the capitalist crisis and recession of 2009. However, union negotiators did not believe management’s “no money” claim. The union had previously foregone a raise to protect the fund back in 2009 when the recession hit. The union had also successfully advocated for the state’s healthcare budget to include a $500 million dollar healthcare fund to be allocated to hospitals and nursing homes to subsidize their operating expenses. This was one of the largest budget allocations towards healthcare institutions in many years.

So in response to the threats against their pension fund, healthcare workers in hospitals and nursing homes across the city organized. Workers wore stickers on the job stating “No Pension, More Tension!” When management suspended workers in one Far Rockaway, Queens, hospital for wearing stickers, union members across the city wore the stickers en masse, in solidarity with those suspended. The unexpected unity and militancy of rank and file members from environmental science all the way up to Med/Surgical Units forced management to reverse the suspensions.

Workers across the city then escalated the struggle by marching into their bosses offices together, presenting management with the union’s contract demands, and thereby sending a message  that they were categorically rejecting management’s pension threats. This show of strength got management to drop some of its more ridiculous proposals, such as floating professional and technical employees between hospitals.

But the fight wasn’t over. On July 11 at 8 am, at the last minute, after marathon all-night talks, management walked out of negotiations. Workers responded by setting up mass picket lines in front of every 1199SEIU hospital and nursing home in the city. Union members made it clear that they were ready to strike, and this forced management back to table on the last day of a union-set strike deadline.

What the agreement says

The new agreement protects healthcare benefits for 1199SEIU members, which are some of the best in the country. New York hospital and nursing home workers are some of the only workers in the country who enjoy universal free healthcare coverage with no co-pays or premiums due to the years of struggle and organizing they have put in.

The contract also protects childcare and education fund benefits which provide union members with access to vouchers to cover the costs of these necessities.

The accord provides for a 3 percent  wage increase per year during the life of the three-year contract. This is an important victory, as other unions have recently have been forced to accept 1 percent and 2 percent increases per year. Management began negotiations unwilling to discuss any raises at all, and then proposing only 2 percent raises per year, before being forced to settle at 3 percent per year.

Another important victory concerned the ability of the union to grow. The hospitals have been subcontracting and using per diem and other temporary workers in an attempt to keep the union from gaining new members. The new contract forces management to provide lists of these non-union workers to the union on set days, thus setting up a process for the union to move these non-union workers into the bargaining unit. Once in the bargaining unit they would enjoy greater pay, benefits, and job security.

Professional and technical employees for the first time won the right to locally bargain with individual nursing homes and hospitals for higher wages in the case of recruitment and retention issues. Another new right won was for Surgical Technicians, who for the first time were given the right to additional pay when they are placed on duty training new employees.

Regarding pensions, under the new contract management will increase its pension contributions from 10 percent to 12.6 percent which translates to $200 million dollars more into the fund during the life of the contract. The union, however, made some concessions. In order to avert a strike, the union agreed to increase the early retirement age from 62 to 62.5 with 25 years rather than 20 years on the job. Penalties for workers who retire prior to age 62.5 were increased from 6 percent per year to 9 percent per year. New workers would vest in the pension in six years, rather then five years.

Union leadership, and many of the negotiation committee, reluctantly agreed to these changes due to the bad shape the pension fund was in. It was argued that the concessions would protect the pension for years to come, and protect the “core benefits of the pension” without increasing the normal retirement age of 65.

However a minority of workers on the negotiation committee, and in the shops, were resistant to the changes and eager to continue the fight. Workers stated this was a major austerity measure and set a bad precedent for management to come back next negotiation and try to strip the pension further. Some workers felt that a strike could force management to back off of the pension. Other workers discussed how this set up a two-tier pension system for the first time.

The 112,000 1199SEIU members who work at the League of Voluntary Hospitals are currently in the process of voting on whether to accept the contract. With leadership endorsement, the contract is widely expected to pass with a 9-to-1 margin.

Despite some concessions, the contract negotiation pulled together tens of thousands of healthcare workers and increased worker militancy in the hospitals. Winning such a contract was a victory in a time when labor is under extreme right-wing attacks shows the power workers have when we come together and organize.