October 30, 2007

Visiting nurses march for worker rights in Albany

Source: NYSUT News Wire
Caption: Dave Senecal (front) moves along the picket line in front of the Visiting Nurses of Albany Inc. building on Monday Oct. 29. Diane Williams, a union negotiator and Senecal's home-health aide, follows behind.

Dave Senecal moved along the picket line, carefully maneuvering the uneven sidewalk beneath him. Like the nearly 150 others who turned out in the crisp autumn air to picket in front of the Visiting Nurses of Albany Inc. building on Monday, Senecal was there in a show of solidarity to support the home-health aides and office staff who have been working without a contract since January.

But unlike the others who marched along Colvin Avenue in Albany chanting and waving placards, there was more on Senecal's mind than fair wages and benefits. The consequences of this labor battle, he noted, will have a direct impact on his health and future.

"If it wasn't for them, I'd have to live in a nursing home," said Senecal, a quadriplegic who's been receiving home care for the last 27 years.

Seated in his motorized wheelchair, the Albany man rolled back and forth along the picket line with a placard resting on his lap that read, "Merit Pay is a Bone, Not a Bonus."

"It's OK for management to give themselves a raise, but they won't give one" to nursing aides, Senecal said. "They've been without a contract for quite a while. It's not right."

NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, speaking to picketers, said the home-health aides and support staff make the Albany area a better place to live through the compassion and care they give to some of the community's neediest people.

Then, in a comment that drew a loud round of applause, Donahue said, "These workers need to be treated with respect."

Negotiations between the union and management started in December, said Mary Goyette, president of the Albany Visiting Nurses Association, which represents just under 100 members - one unit for nurses and another unit for home-health aides and office support staff. But since May 21, the administration has not budged on its no-raise position for the latter unit.

"All we want is a living salary - something that's fair," said Diane Williams, a union negotiator and home-health aide for 12 years. "We're out on the roads and in dangerous neighborhoods everyday."

After being told by a mediator that the union was getting nowhere in negotiations, members decided it was time to take action, Goyette said.

"This is our first time picketing," she said. "It's a great turnout."

Joining the VNA on the picket line were members of NYSUT and its affiliates throughout Albany and Schenectady counties, along with Albany-area union members and and the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition.

"It's important we get out and support our fellow union members," said Maryam Mair of the Mohonasen Teachers Association, which this year started a solidarity committee that aims to lend support in the endeavors of other labor unions.

Goyette laid out some issues facing the home-health aides and support personnel. For instance, an office worker hired in the late 1970s at $5.12 per hour now earns after 28 years of service just $14.47. That represents an annual average pay increase of 33 cents over that span.

Meanwhile, home-health aides hired in 1987 at $4.35 now make $10.83 - just 83 cents more per hour than today's new hires.

All VNA employees also pay 100 percent of their family health insurance. Retiree benefits are non-existent for nurses, office staff, or home-health aides.

Assemblyman Robert Reilly, D-Colonie, said the union's fight encompasses two of the biggest issues now before the state Legislature: the upstate economy and health care.

"I like to join with workers who are out on the picket line," said Reilly, who joined in the march. "Many years ago, I lost my job working for the State Education Department. I found that a very trying time. We often define ourselves by our jobs - for not only our financial well-being but our mental well-being. And though these people have not lost their jobs, this is about respect and dignity. People should have a job that pays not only a living wage, but that also provides a pension, benefits and health care."