Few people on campus realize that just five minutes down the road, one of the most intense anti-union fights in the country is being waged. The unassuming name of Sweet Brook Nursing Home belies a management that, since January, has pursued a relentless campaign of misinformation and harassment to pressure workers against forming a union. Sweet Brook is a fixture in our community with a reputation for outstanding patient care. Williams students regularly volunteer there, and many staff and faculty either know Sweet Brook workers or have family members who are patients. But management’s efforts to intimidate caregivers are offensive to our community’s sense of fairness. As Williams students, staff and faculty, we should show solidarity with workers who only want a voice in the nursing home they work for. As board members for the company that owns Sweet Brook, Williams’ Vice President for Operations Stephen Klass and English Professor Stephen Fix should hold management accountable for its unfair treatment of workers.
Here is a breakdown of the situation at Sweet Brook as workers have described it to me Their struggle to unionize began in November when 72 percent of staff signed union membership cards and filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Sweet Brook workers wanted the ability to advocate for fairer employment practices like the union at North Adams Regional Hospital. Ever since Sweet Brook was sold to Northern Berkshire Healthcare several years ago, workers have noticed marked changes in how the new management handles staff. According to workers I have spoken with, many no longer feel respected and are often treated as if they were dispensable, and they want to organize so they can get the respect they deserve.
From the start, management has been unreasonably uncooperative with its own workers. The union election was delayed for two months because management argued that staff nurses are supervisors who cannot join the union. Everyone at Sweet Brook knows how unfounded this claim is – staff nurses are washing patients and distributing pills, not hiring or firing personnel. After six days of strenuous hearings in Boston, the NLRB dismissed management’s case.
Management then hired the costly services of the Weissman Group, a firm that counts among its clientele major corporations like AT&T and Kmart and has a long record of doing whatever it takes to take down a union – even breaking the law. Michael Shuey, a Weissman consultant identified by Sweet Brook workers, operates out of a special office on the premises of Sweet Brook. Shuey consulted for the Heartland of Lansing Nursing Home when it was cited by the NLRB for 18 different violations of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), including “coercively interrogating employees,” “threatening an employee with loss of benefits,” “conducting surveillance of employees” and “subjecting employees to verbal harassment and abuse.” Mary Rita Weissman, the other consultant identified by Sweet Brook workers, previously consulted for Spurlino Materials, where she led an anti-union campaign. A judge ordered an injunction to force this company to cease “retaliating against union leaders and members,” and “interfering with, restraining or coercing employees’ exercise of their rights.”
Sweet Brook workers report that these consultants are using many of the same tactics again. Workers sit through hours of thinly veiled propaganda in mandatory information sessions. Supervisors single out workers in meetings in order to question them about union activities and lecture them with lies, claiming, for example, that employees will lose all existing benefits when the union begins negotiating a new contract. What’s more, it is highly likely that management is breaking the law. Workers filed charges with the NLRB because supervisors routinely rip up pro-union flyers and prohibit pro-union literature in the workplace. The NLRA requires that pro-union and anti-union literature be given equal distribution access, but a human resources director circulated an e-mail advising management that potential legal penalties for breaking this law were too minor to matter.
Even though it’s midterm season for us, that doesn’t change the fact that the rights of Sweet Brook workers are being flagrantly violated. Institutionally, Williams wields tremendous influence within the community, and we are collectively responsible for ensuring that it is used properly. As board members of Northern Berkshire Healthcare, Klass and Fix are tasked with overseeing management, and we must call on them to intervene and uphold the values we assume they share. There are also ways we can show our support for the workers as they prepare for a difficult fight in the union election next Thursday. We can urge Klass, Fix and CEO Richard Palmisano with letters and phone calls and tell them that union busters have no business harassing our neighbors. We can send the message that this open disregard for the law will not be tolerated in our community.
Sweet Brook workers are proud of the care they give and only want a union so that they can even better serve their patients. They do not deserve to be dragged through the mud with this vicious campaign of lies and harassment.
William Lee ’11 is from Brooklyn, N.Y. He lives in Bryant.