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.”
On July 6, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a formal complaint against HealthBridge—its fifth against Straus’ company. In the fourteen-page document, the NLRB admonishes HealthBridge’s “pattern of bad faith bargaining,” citing the company’s refusal to negotiate with the union, illegal firings of workers, and threats to close facilities and lock out employees. The complaint also calls for a hearing on September 10. In the meantime, the Connecticut Department of Labor has ruled that the workers are eligible for unemployment benefits retroactive to the beginning of the strike, and judges in two separate cases have ruled that HealthBridge violated labor law in their dealings with the union.
HealthBridge, on the other hand, believes that the union is responsible for the drawn-out negotiations and illegal behavior. The company recently launched a website, healthbridgefacts.com, which is dedicated to telling its side of the story. It is also beginning a full investigation into criminal acts, such as switching the names of patients in the memory care unit, which HealthBridge accuses the workers of doing on their way out.
Throughout this long process, SLAM organizers have maintained contact with the union to demonstrate their solidarity and learn how they can best use their position as NYU students to effect change. Their campaign’s goal is to pressure Straus into respecting his workers and their right to organize or, if he refuses to do so, demand that he be removed from NYU's Board of Trustees.
“It reflects poorly on NYU to have somebody who clearly has no sense of morality to be a trustee of the law school and endowing the Institute for Law and Justice,” said Caitlin MacLaren, an NYU undergraduate and SLAM member. “I think it’s really hypocritical of him to tout his philanthropic projects while simultaneously treating his employees like dirt.”
Of course, NYU’s poor history with labor, demonstrated most clearly by the university’s longtime refusal to recognize graduate employees’ collective bargaining rights, leaves little question as to why the administration is not taking action against Straus.
Regardless, organizers are still trying to find ways to pressure Straus from within the university. On the morning of July 25, about thirty-five striking caregivers traveled to Greenwich Village to deliver a letter to Joseph Weiler, Director of the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice. The letter’s purpose was to alert Weiler to the situation and appeal to his sense of justice, and a small contingent of NYU student activists, myself included, joined the workers in delivering it.
Standing outside of the law school’s D’Agostino Hall, where Weiler was scheduled to attend a meeting, workers and students held up the signs and banners that are, in the year of Occupy Wall Street, familiar indicators that disruption is imminent. But despite their frustration over the contentious situation, the group on the sidewalk sought not to disrupt but to inform—much to the disbelief of NYU security, who refused entrance to anyone carrying the union’s informational flyer, confiscating every handout and effectively negating the group’s outreach efforts.
“I am, of course, aware of the labor dispute one of his companies is having with the union,” stated Weiler. “There are both factual and legal issues on which the parties strongly disagree—issues that are now being litigated. It will be the courts that will finally decide the rights and wrongs of this case and I think it is wise to allow the legal process to take its course. I am confident that Daniel Straus will faithfully comply with the final judicial resolution.”
According to NYU’s website, “Trustees are the keepers of the mission of NYU.” But as Cecilia Gingerich, an NYU graduate student and SLAM member, explained, Straus is failing to live up to that standard. “By simultaneously donating millions of dollars to the NYU School of Law and engaging in such reprehensible labor practices as cutting health care benefits for his workers, we believe that Daniel Straus is undermining the university’s collective goals.”
For the NYU community, this raises the question of where the responsibility to hold power to account falls. “Students have the right to help shape the goals and policies of NYU, and therefore the right to demand accountability and fair behavior from the university’s public representatives, including Daniel Straus,” continued Gingerich. “His actions implicate the broader NYU community unless the other members in that community choose to take a stand against them and support the workers.”
But for the hundreds of workers walking the picket line in Connecticut, it is a matter not of democratizing a large private university but of simple fairness and respect. “Take care of the people and they’ll take care of your company,” said Tanya Beckford, a caregiver at the Newington Health Care Center in Connecticut. “[Straus] doesn’t take care of people who take care of him.”