As striking District 1199 workers march in front of West River Health Care Center on Orange Avenue protesting a contract they say they never agreed to, they aren’t alone. Scabby the cat marches beside them.
The black and gray tabby cat has been outside with the striking certified nursing assistants (CNAs), aides, kitchen employees and others since the workers were first locked out of their jobs this past winter. HealthBridge Management, the company that owns West River and several other nursing homes in the state, locked the Milford employees out of their jobs because they failed to approve a contract.
Workers were allowed back into the building April 4, as contract negotiations were expected to continue. But when HealthBridge Management imposed a new contract June 17, the workers readied “on strike” placards and headed back to the sidewalk July 3. Scabby the cat was there waiting for them.
The tabby cat marches alongside the workers as they carry their signs in front of the health care facility. And he sits with them along the sidewalk when they stop to rest.
“He walked in the winter with us, and he’s walking with us now,” said Rosa Davila, a CNA at West River Health Care for about six years.
“We wanted to call him 1199, but that was too long,” she said. “When we started calling him Scabby, he acted like he already knew that was his name.”
Davila said she is amazed at how loyal the cat is, following her and the others up and down the sidewalk.
Noreen Gates, central supply coordinator for the health care center, said the cat is feral and had been living outside the facility about two years. Workers feed him, and therefore it seemed obvious which side the cat would choose in this battle between employee and employer.
Cindy Bain, a CNA, said the cat apparently thinks of District 1199 as its family, and is showing its allegiance.
The striking workers here, and Union representative Jesse Martin, said Scabby isn’t the only one who thinks of them as family. They say many of the patients inside, who are now being cared for by replacement workers, feel similarly about the striking workers.
Martin said about five of the union members attended a funeral this week for a patient who died. He said that reflects that patient/caregiver relationship that turns into a family-type connection over time.
That’s a key aspect of the ongoing battle that HealthBridge doesn’t understand, union members said.
“They don’t care about the relationships,” Gates said.
The union workers are striking because a new contract calls for them paying a substantial health insurance cost that they didn’t pay before, and alters their pensions and other benefits to an extent they say is detrimental to their ability to make ends meet.
Company owners have said they are making adjustments in light of a tough economy, and they say they don’t think it’s unreasonable that workers pay part of their insurance costs.
A series of court rulings had at least one striking worker this week saying that District 1199 is winning the battle against HealthBridge. A union spokesperson said the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has issued five federal complaints against HealthBridge for labor law violations; a judge ruled in the union’s favor on two of those, and the others are pending. A judge is expected to start ruling on the remaining complaints Sept. 10.
Although a judge ruled that HealthBridge had the right to stop collecting union dues when the employees’ contract ran out, the other decisions so far indicate that the union is in the right and that HealthBridge has been violating labor laws, said District 1199 spokesman Deborah Chernoff.
At the same time, HealthBridge is charging employees at three of its other health care facilities around the state with “sabotage and vandalism” for allegedly removing wrist bands from residents, changing names on patient doors and wheelchairs, and similar acts before the strike began.
A union spokesman didn’t have much to say in response to the allegation, but said he thinks HealthBridge “is getting desperate.”
Union members in Milford say they don’t know how long they will be on strike. They say they haven’t seen any new offers from HealthBridge since they headed out onto the sidewalk, and they’re looking forward to the Sept. 10 NLRB cases moving forward.
And Scabby the cat, who was rubbing his head against an employee’s hand as the strikers stopped to eat lunch Wednesday, seemed to be in for the duration.