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Union Targets Nursing Home Workers; Mayor, Three Priests Meet Resistance

By Teresa Rochester

In the shadow of a raucous campaign to organize one of the city's luxury beachfront hotels another unionizing effort aimed at nursing home workers has quietly been gathering steam in Santa Monica.

On Tuesday the three-week-old campaign went public when Mayor Ken Genser said that he and three Catholic priests were turned away from Fireside Convalescent Hospital after they attempted to deliver a letter to the facility's administrator. A hospital staff member tore up the letter and police were called to remove the delegation from the property.

"It was very sad," said Scott Washburn, organizing coordinator for the Service Employee International Union. "We're trying to digest the fact that they threw out the mayor and three priests."

The push to unionize the approximately 800 certified nursing assistants, dieticians and housekeepers working in Santa Monica's 15 nursing homes is part of a countywide unionizing effort and comes on the heels of increased pressure to unionize the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. The SEIU represents the janitors and approximately 100,000 nursing home workers in Los Angeles County.

"It grew out of the janitors' strike and the very successful immigration forum [at the Los Angeles Sport's Arena]," said Washburn. "There's a clamoring of nursing home workers who had been given hope by the janitors."

The nursing home industry is frequently staffed with immigrants who make approximately $7 an hour and tend to work more than one job to make ends meet Washburn said. He added that unionizing would lead to better wages, benefits and increased patient care.

The attempt to unionize nursing homes in the county is done in clusters. Santa Monica, Washburn said, has a very large cluster of 15 homes. Organizers targeted Fireside after the recent firing of three employees, Washburn said. He added that the workers believe they were fired for organizing.

Nursing home officials could not be reached for comment.

On Tuesday Genser, accompanied by Father Juan Romero of St. Clement's Catholic Church, Father Gilberto Martinez and Brother Brian Gillis went to the front door of Fireside Convalescent Hospital on Third Street where they were greeted by two women in business attire, Genser said.

One of the women identified herself as Karen Eccleston, the facility's administrator and the recipient of the envoy's letter, Genser said. When presented with the letter, the woman placed it on the ground and went inside. Eccleston was not available for comment.

"We were there in cooperation," said Genser, who was called about a week ago by union officials seeking assistance. "We really stressed we were there to be friendly."

A maintenance worker came out to inform the delegates the police had been called, then tore up the letter, Genser said.

The campaign to organize the county's nursing home employees will intensify in upcoming weeks, according to Washburn. He said that most employees welcome the union, which represents about 1.4 million nursing home employees nationwide.

"People see the huge disparity between the haves and the have-nots," Washburn said.

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