On Jan. 29, the mostly women workers at Berlin Health and Rehabilitation made history again – by gaining a first contract after an extraordinary, 15-month struggle.
Berlin workers made history in August 2000 by becoming the first nursing home employees in Vermont to organize, and the first U.S. employees of CPL/REIT to gain union recognition.
The largest owner/operator of nursing homes in Canada, where it is based, CPL/REIT owns 20 nursing homes in the United States. Ninety-five percent of the Canadian facilities are unionized, none in the U.S. – except for Berlin.
Local 254 members are now the first nursing home workers in Vermont, and the first CPL/REIT employees in the U.S., to have a union contract.
The 13-month agreement substantially raises wages, especially for the lowest paid employees. A 17-year employee whose wages had never reached $7 will see $9 an hour.
For the first time, workers will have an equal voice with management on the crucial issue of staffing, through the contract’s creation of a staffing committee. The agreement doubles the amount sick days, a gain especially valued by the many single mothers in the workforce.
The contract also establishes seniority protection, a grievance procedure, and freezes the health insurance costs management tried to raise.
To achieve this first contract, Berlin workers testified at public hearings about nursing home care, attended CPL’s stockholders’ meeting in Toronto, lobbied legislators, wrote letters to the editor, walked informational picket lines at their own and other Vermont CPL facilities, rallied, marched in parades, wore stickers, signed petitions, appeared on radio shows and cable access television programs, attended numerous press conferences, distributed pro-union yard signs in their communities, raised money for their own events, and regularly filed formal complaints about nursing home care with the state.
A first contract is not their only victory. Local 254 members were instrumental in convincing the State of Vermont to strengthen regulation of nursing home care. Previously long-term care nursing homes were required to have sufficient staffing. Now homes must provide each patient with one-on-one care for three hours a week – a move that will force facilities to improve staffing levels. Nursing home workers throughout Vermont – and patients – will benefit as a result of the gutsiness of the UE members at Berlin Health & Rehab.