February 2, 2009

Revolt on Goose Island: Take-overs the only option for more and more workers


When Jesse jackson visited with striking workers at the Repbulic Windows & Doors factory on the second day of their occupation, he called their action a model for emulation in the new economic landscape. In the latest installment of her ongoing Melville House “Live Book” project, Kari Lydersen takes a look back at how prophetic that may have been ….

The shuttered Commonwealth Medical Center in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania.

The shuttered Commonwealth Medical Center in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania.

Chicago, February 2, 2009 — Just a few days after the Republic Windows factory occupation, a very similar situation was unfolding at the Commonwealth Medical Center in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a hardscrabble town near Pittsburgh hard-hit by steel mill closings of the 1980s.

The medical center began as a non-profit hospital founded by the local Steelworkers union when the mills were booming. The hospital fell into difficult financial straits as did the whole region when steel production moved overseas and the local mills closed. But the increasing joblessness and poverty made the hospital’s affordable services all the more crucial. Last year the hospital was taken over by a for-profit company and renamed the Commonwealth Medical Center.

On Dec. 5 the center filed for bankruptcy protection, and two weeks before Christmas it shut down without giving its workers fair notice and severance pay, continued health benefits…or even their last three weeks of wages.

On New Year’s Eve the bankruptcy court overseeing the proceedings decided executives and “critical employees” (including security guards) of the center could receive $151,000 worth of pay…but nothing yet for the regular workers, represented by SEIU. (See the story in the Allegheny Times, or in this report from local journalist and labor organizer Carl Davidson.)

When it ran in the Allegheny Times, the original caption of this photo read: \"Employees of Commonwealth Medical Center march around the parking lot of the former Aliquippa Hospital in protest of not being paid since the middle of December.\"The hospital nurses and other workers traveled to Chicago to meet with and protest the center’s creditor, Bridge Finance Group, at its headquarters in the Sears Tower on Jan. 23. Some Republic Windows workers joined them on a picket line.

Then on Monday Jan. 26, the hospital workers staged a sit-in at the hospital, as nurses, union reps and interfaith leaders met with hospital executives inside. As the talks reached a stalemate, police were called to break up the protest. The next day, Jan. 27, the bankruptcy trustee reached an agreement with the union to pay the workers’ due wages, part of the balance immediately and the remainder by Feb. 17. (For more details see the story at the Examnier.com. Josh Kalven of the website Progress Illinois has also been following the Aliquippa story and its links with Republic Windows – read more here.)

Union chief Neil Bisno meets with angry hospital workers.

Union chief Neil Bisno meets with angry hospital workers.

Now as at Republic Windows, the hospital workers’ struggle continues – to keep the center open, both for the jobs and for the crucial medical care it provides the community. Journalist/organizer Carl Davidson in his story cited above sums up union rep Neil Bisno’s take on the situation. Bisno said they need to first, “carry on the legal battle to win for the workers what’s due to them; second, to continue the publicity campaign to mobilize public pressure; third, to support the immediate needs of the workers, seeking benefits and new employment.”

“But fourth and last,” Bisno said, “We want to see a rebirth. This is a fine facility, and it’s needed. There has to be a way to reopen health care services here. We just have to find it.”