The nurses at Northampton County’s Gracedale Nursing Home in Pennsylvania are proud members of United Steelworkers Local 2599. The nurses – along with the leadership and Rapid Response Team from the local – are providing a great example of activism that rises to meet the challenges of today’s work environment.
In the name of “fixing the budget,” Northampton County leaders proposed to sell Gracedale to a private company, turning over control to the highest bidder and fundamentally changing the facility into a profit-seeking entity. The county tried very hard to ensure that the sale of the nursing home went as quickly and as quietly as possible. Reports from the council meetings showed the desire of the county executive to push the sale through at any cost.
Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan (center) with USW 2599 Rapid Response members
The attempt to sell the facility happened against the backdrop of strained labor relations between the county and the union. The county sought to delay collective bargaining with unions there until after a possible sale of the facility to a private operator. By selling off the nursing home, they would no longer have to sit down and bargain with the Steelworker nurses and the other workers represented by AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
“We have gone to the county numerous times, asking them to sit down and bargain,” expressed Local 2599 President Jerry Green.
The Local decided upon a new strategy, and activated their Rapid Response network to start a petition drive to put the question of selling Gracedale on the ballot. This would let the citizens of Northampton County decide the fate and value of an institution in their community. Rapid Response Team members went to the mall, door to door and other local areas to secure the significant number of signatures needed to satisfy the ballot requirements. Despite attempts to challenge the signatures by those who didn’t want the issue on the ballot, the union prevailed. Ultimately, the union secured over 23,000 signatures.
Once the measure was approved for the ballot, it was more work right up until Election Day. Steelworkers and their allies went out again and knocked on doors and canvassed neighborhoods to educate voters to “Vote YES to Save Gracedale”. The local also built strong allies amongst AFSCME, other local unions, advocates for the residents and community members, engaging them in the fight to protect and preserve the nursing home for the good of the community.
2599 Rapid Response members gather with District 10 RR Bobby Mac after 2011 Primary Election results
Tuesday, May 17, 2011 – Election Day – was a huge success. The vote was three to one in favor of saving Gracedale. The victory ensures that the Gracedale Nursing home will remain a county property for the next five years. The citizens spoke and they decided that people were more important in Northampton County than corporate profits.
While the fight for a good contract and long-term stability for Gracedale will continue, this ballot measure gave Northampton county residents the chance to fight back. Through their hard work, Local 2599 led the way in providing that chance.
USW District 10 Rapid Response Coordinator Bob McAuliffe reports, “Local 2599 gives us an inspiring story of taking on a local government in defense of workers and a vital part of the community, as well as a great example of how a dedicated local – engaged, informed and activated – can make real and positive change in the lives of many.”