Clients Held Hostage in St. John's Organizing Campaign

Imagine an employer holding you responsible for institutionalizing its developmentally disabled clients because you chose to vote for a union. That's the guilt trip organizers say was laid on 72 direct care workers employed in group homes run by St. John's Community Services. Despite the threat, on Jan. 20 and 22 they voted 33-19 to be represented by CWA.

District 1 Organizing Coordinator Erin Bowie reported the results of their National Labor Relations Board election that took place at five different sites throughout New Jersey over the two days.

The support specialists work on different shifts at group homes in five New Jersey counties: Mercer, Monmouth, Union, Essex and Ocean. Balloting took place in Seven Oaks, Lawrenceville, Rahway, Long Branch and Farmingdale, N.J., on Thursday, but management requested it not be completed at Seven Oaks until Saturday. Said Local 1037 Organizer Heidi Thomas, "Then they cancelled all Saturday activities there, hoping the workers would not come in and vote."

Management also conducted captive audience meetings and even served workers an expensive shrimp meal, attempting to dissuade them from voting for the union.

Thomas said the campaign began in October when two Local 1037 members at St. John's contacted her and local Organizer Anne Luck-Soyak. Like many of the care workers, Sherl Williams and Vivian Hemmingway worked two jobs. They knew the benefits of belonging to CWA as employees of the Association of Retarded Citizens, where Local 1037 has represented about 250 workers for the last several years.

"They said they didn't like the way management treated them at St. John's," Thomas said. "Workers often did not get paid on time and were fired or suspended for no cause and with no notice."

They helped form a strong organizing committee with one person from every group home in the five counties.

"Committee members distributed information and talked to co-workers and we did house visits," Thomas said.

Conditions at the homes were such that many of the workers bought food or articles of clothing for clients with their own money.

"We know the importance of the work we do, and our fight is not simply about improving conditions for ourselves, but also about improving conditions for those we serve," proclaimed a unity poster signed by 62 percent of the workers.

"Now they are ecstatic," said Thomas. "They're looking forward to completing a bargaining survey and to forming a bargaining committee. They're looking forward to having a voice on the job."