Newington — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy walked a picket line Wednesday with striking nursing-home workers, accusing HealthBridge Management of New Jersey of violating labor laws in its battle with employees at its five facilities in Connecticut.
“Let’s be honest. What HealthBridge is attempting to do illegally is to break the union. That’s what they want to do,” Malloy said. “They want to be the new model in the state of Connecticut, and we don’t want them to be.”
Emboldened by a National Labor Relations Board complaint accusing the company of bargaining in bad faith last week, Malloy was unusually harsh in his denunciation of HealthBridge as he marched with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman.
“This was made easy. I am the governor, and I can’t go to every picket line across the state every time,” Malloy said, adding there is a collective bargaining process. “What is quite clear is that process is not being respected by HealthBridge.”
Malloy briefly marched with strikers from SEIU 1199NE, a politically active union in Connecticut, outside the Newington Health Center, clapping his hands as workers chanted, “No work, no peace.”
It is not Malloy’s first time on a picket line with SEIU: He marched with the union outside a Hartford nursing home on the day he won the Democratic primary in 2010.
David W. Pickus, president of SEIU 1199NE, said the strike grew out of an illegal lockout by HealthBridge, which ceased to bargain. They are demanding deep cuts in health and retirement benefits.
“They came in with slash and burn,” Pickus said. “I’m talking about cutting people’s compensation between 40 and 70 percent, wages and benefits.”
Edmund Remillard, a spokesman for the company, did not comment on the governor’s claim that HealthBridge is breaking the law, but he issued a statement accusing the union of walking away from the table.
“We had been negotiating in good faith with the Union when it chose to abandon negotiations, jobs and our residents,” he said. “For seventeen months, the Union made untenable demands while refusing to engage.”
Workers are striking at the Danbury Health Care Center, Long Ridge of Stamford, Newington Health Care Center, West River Health Care Center in Milford and Westport Health Care Center.
Remillard said the company has hired 450 replacement workers, and some strikers have returned to work.
HealthBridge says the union is waging an economic strike over wages and benefits, while SEIU says its strike is over unfair labor practices.
The distinction is important: A company can permanently replace strikers in an economic strike, but not when the issue is unfair labor practices.
Malloy said the issues behind the strike are unfair labor tactics by HealthBridge, which he says subjects the company to having to pay back wages.
“I have to tell you I can’t quite discern what they really want in the state of Connecticut,” Malloy said. “Do they want to be here, or don’t they want to be here? Let me be very clear, they are going to owe these employees hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
On Wednesday, the strikers outside the Newington facility were employees of the company’s various facilities.
Eddy Goutier of Bridgeport said he makes $450 a week, but the company was demanding he begin contributing $500 a month for his health coverage.
“They also are raising the co-pay and taking away holiday and vacation,” he said. “They are taking a lot from us.”