Nurses strike for a fair contract

February 4, 2009

DEPTFORD, N.J.--Nurses went on strike at two Innova Health and Rehab facilities in Hammonton and Deptford, N.J., just outside of Philadelphia, on January 23. The members of District 1199C, National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, have been without a contract since April.

At issue are Innova's demands for cuts across the board--in pay, pension and health benefits. In their expired contract, nurses were paid time-and-a-half for weekend shifts (two 12-hour days) to make up for a lower-than-standard rate of $21 an hour.

"Innova wants to raise their hourly pay by 2.2 percent, but cut the time-and-a-half. That's a huge pay cut," said John Hundcynski, who has been an administrative organizer with 1199C for nine years.

"It's a 33 percent cut on weekends," said Dorothy Owens, a nurse and union delegate at the Deptford facility. "What they really want is the union out. It's cheaper for them that way, so they cut the rates and offer us a lousy insurance plan."

Innova wants to raise the cost of nurse's health care from $20 per week to $800 a month. And their demands don't stop there. "Under the old contract, they paid $1.25 an hour into our pension plan," said Owens. "Now they offered to pay 10 cents an hour. So they basically want our pensions gone."

The nurses didn't want to leave their patients, even offering to take a wage freeze, but were forced to strike to keep a decent salary and benefits. Owens said the strike has gained strong support from families of the patients inside the facilities. "The families bring us food on the picket line," she said. "They don't want scab nurses taking care of their loved ones."

Patients have died since the strike began, as agency scabs were shuffled into situations they're not familiar with. "People are saying that some of the deaths were because of medical mistakes," said Owens.

Other members of 1199C, based in Philadelphia, have come to walk the picket line and show their solidarity. On February 1, two workers from Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia were there. "It's great," said Owens. "And when they go on strike, we'll go and join them in solidarity too."

Union members have braved below-freezing temperatures to put pressure on Innova. Their picket will continue every day, from 6 a.m. to the early evening, until workers get a fair contract.

Hundcynski summed up the spirit and confidence on the picket line: "We'll do whatever we have to do to win this thing."

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