The NYU School of Law’s Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice has a mission “to merge premier academic and intellectual conditions with community integration and a sense of public service.” Annually endowed with $1.25 million from Daniel E. Straus, a trustee at the law school, the institute is defined by an “international, multicultural, interdisciplinary, and community-minded approach.”
But over the past year, Straus has seemingly failed to live up to the mission of his own institute. His company HealthBridge Management, which owns nursing homes in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, refuses to bargain in good faith with workers at its Connecticut facilities and, while Straus is accused of violating labor laws, his employees are walking the picket line.
NYU’s Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), noting the irony in the contradiction between Straus’ actions and the title of his namesake institute, is organizing a campaign against the trustee. In the last year, the group of student activists has held protests, teach-ins, and film screenings, working closely with SEIU 1199 NE, which represents HealthBridge’s employees, to bring awareness of this complex situation to the NYU community.
In 2011, when the union and HealthBridge began negotiating a new contract, the company proposed a version that would decrease both wages and benefits over time. The union refused those terms, and HealthBridge responded on December 13 by locking out one hundred workers at the West River Care Center in Milford, Connecticut.
As contract negotiations continued into 2012, the company threatened to not only lock out workers at its other Connecticut facilities, but to close them all together. Caregivers at New Jersey nursing homes run by CareOne, HealthBridge’s parent company, faced difficult contract negotiations as well; the company resorted to intimidation, threats, and firings to dissuade workers from organizing at those facilities.
Only one Connecticut nursing home has been closed, but the others are still engaged in the battle with HealthBridge. On June 17, HealthBridge announced that it would no longer negotiate with the union, choosing to instead impose its own contract on the workers. The proposed contract, which increased health care costs, froze the workers’ retirement plan, and offered fewer working hours, prompted the caregivers to vote twenty-five-to-one to send the company a strike notice on June 21. Since July 3, approximately six hundred caregivers at five HealthBridge facilities have been on strike.
“The company negotiated in good faith for more than a year and a half,” said Lisa Crutchfield, Senior Vice President of Labor Relations at HealthBridge. Asked if the company felt any pressure due to the strike, she replied, “A full ten percent of SEIU members parted company with the union and have returned to work… The only pressure we feel is to achieve excellence every single day in caring for our residents.”
Striking is a costly choice for the workers, and many of the caregivers are struggling without steady paychecks. For Sophia Forbes, who has worked at HealthBridge’s Newington Health Care Center in Connecticut for nineteen years, striking has meant falling behind on the monthly payments for her daughter’s college tuition. “All the money I get I’m putting towards her education,” she explained. “Patients know me by name. They’re my family. But my number one priority is my family at home, which was really affected. My other child is going to college in the next two years. She can’t go.”