The HealthBridge workers, who belong to SEIU, earned an average of $15.36 an hour and hadn't had a raise since 2009, but that didn't stop management from demanding they pay thousands a year in new health insurance premiums, along with cuts to sick days, overtime, and more. From December 2011 until April 2012, workers at one of the five HealthBridge nursing homes in Connecticut were locked out over these issues. Then, just months after the lockout ended, management unilaterally imposed a "last, best, and final" contract containing massive benefit cuts. The workers went on strike—a strike management wouldn't let them end, as it turned out.
Since then, the workers have gotten victory after victory, as we'll see below the fold. But none of those legal victories have gotten the workers back on the job. Because HealthBridge faces such minimal penalties that it's worth it to the committed union-busters running the company.
In August, the NLRB ordered HealthBridge to reinstate the striking workers, with back pay. The company did not comply.
In September, the NLRB's charges of law-breaking by HealthBridge went to trial. That trial has not yet been concluded.
Also in September, the NLRB filed an injunction to get the workers back on the job. That injunction was granted in December and the company was ordered to reinstate the workers. The company did not comply.
The company asked for a stay. The judge who had granted the injunction denied a stay. HealthBridge went to an appeals court for a stay. Denied. HealthBridge went to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for a stay, citing the appeals court decision overturning President Obama's recess appointments to the NLRB. Denied. The company then went to Justice Antonin Scalia for a stay. Denied again.
The injunction was granted in mid-December. Nearly two months later, HealthBridge has still not reinstated the workers as ordered. The NLRB's regional director informed HealthBridge that "Unless you advise this office by the close of business on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, that Respondents intend to comply with the District Court's Order as clarified above, I will recommend the initiation of civil contempt proceedings." As of Friday afternoon, the company is saying it will reinstate the workers, but it's not saying when.
This is a case where the NLRB has done its best for the workers. They're still out of work as a direct result of their employer refusing to bargain in good faith while demanding massive concessions, then unilaterally imposing those cuts. They're out of work because their employer has the resources to delay its way through the courts and has the overriding belief that it’s worth the risk to break the union. The HealthBridge workers may get a victory that means something. They may get back to work if the company decides not to push it with the contempt proceedings. They may, ultimately, get some back pay if the trial ends in their favor. But in the mean time, these 600 nursing home workers who make an average of around $32,000 a year have been out of work since June. That’s a far greater cost to them than the cost of doing it to them has posed for their employer. And that highlights the way a law that allows for endless delay and doesn't impose significant penalties ultimately favors those with the money to delay endlessly—business, not workers.
For businesses, the puny fines, the small amount of bad publicity, and even the increased business costs they face in trying to break not just unions but workers can be a cost of doing business. The cost of breaking workers so that they take what you offer in future, however inadequate it is. Breaking them so that they don’t complain, don’t fight for a bigger voice or higher pay or better benefits.
This is a theory embraced by many companies. Walmart springs to mind. American Crystal Sugar. The National Hockey League. They don't need an excuse. The narrowest, shortest-term profit motive is reason enough even for already profitable companies. And workers? For the most part, just treading water will be a victory until labor law changes for the better.