When nurses' aides, housekeepers, kitchen staff and drivers went on strike at Avery Heights nursing home and assisted living in November 1999, they figured the picketing wouldn't last long.
"It was probably going to be a six-week strike, max," thought Sharon Weir, a nurses' aide who had worked for a decade at the home in Hartford's South End. Just a few years earlier, a strike ended with a settlement after barely more than three weeks.
Instead, about 200 strikers were locked out two months later as the company hired permanent replacement workers — while still negotiating.
"I was devastated," said Weir, now 45. "It seemed like someone just punched me in my gut. I couldn't believe it."
The lockout lasted as long as 2½ years for some of the workers.
Today, after 10 years of legal wrangling through six appeals, the workers who were locked out will receive back pay with interest — $2.05 million in cash, an average of $15,433 for each of 133 affected people, plus nearly half a million dollars in pension benefits.
"Even if it was a dollar, it was the principle of the thing," said Patricia Torbicki, a former van driver who will receive $28,000.
The settlement marks the end of one of the most bitter disputes in recent labor history. The chief executive of Church Homes Inc., the nonprofit owner of Avery Heights, said last month that he believed the ruling was unjust because the replacement workers were needed for quality service to residents.
"We felt we did it appropriately and in accordance with the law. I feel that the process of defending our action was biased against us at every step of the way, and our side of the story was given very little consideration," said Church Homes Chief Executive Patrick Gilland.
After the lockout, New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, fought Church Homes at the National Labor Relations Board and in federal courts, over whether the action was legal. The company and District 1199, which is part of Service Employees International Union, had a seesaw battle that ended last October, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the last appeal by the company.
"Most people from the outside were absolutely convinced the union lost the strike," said Deborah Chernoff, spokeswoman for District 1199.
The awards are based on how long strikers had to wait to be called back to work; the largest settlement is $64,654, plus pension gains.
Even some of the workers, including Weir, started to lose faith. "This is never going to happen," Weir said she thought to herself during the legal battles.
Weir and other present and former Avery Heights employees spoke about the long wait Monday at the District 1199 office in Hartford.
During the lockout, Weir, of Hartford, found another job as a nurses' aide in Vernon, paying $14 an hour — $2 more than the Avery job. But when Avery offered her full-time work again after four months, she gladly returned.
"It's right close to home. I didn't have to travel 30 to 45 minutes," she said. "Going to Avery is like going home. It still is."
But even after she went back to work, she continued to picket on her days off, on behalf of the workers still locked out.
Her friend Herman Davies Jr. was out of work for the full 2½ years.
Davies, now 58, had taken a housekeeping job at Avery in 1992 after he was laid off from a better-paying sheet metal fabricating job at Hamilton Standard in the late 1980s. Twenty years later, he's back at Avery, making $15.74 an hour — the same salary he made at Hamilton (now Hamilton Sundstrand).
He said he was disgusted when he learned about the lockout. "We had good workers. Why would you go in and trade a good Cadillac for an old Ford?"
Davies applied for dozens of jobs, but said that when prospective employers heard he was from Avery, the tone changed. "They didn't say it, but you felt it." He said they'd say: "We'll call you in a couple of weeks." The call never came.
Davies relied on unemployment and then strike pay, as well as his wife's nursing aide salary, in the years he was out of work.
Now, he'll receive tens of thousands in the settlement — he declined to say how much. His youngest daughter is going to college in the fall. Some will go into retirement savings. "Everybody will get some, even the dog," Davies joked.
As the years dragged on — and former strikers worked side-by-side with replacements, some of whom are still on staff — management told them to forget about the battle for back pay, Weir said.
"You're never going to get this," she said they would say. "It's going to be tied up in court forever."
Torbicki, 39, of Newington, thought the case might be settled after she died. In 2001, she said she was hired in the union office as a receptionist, and later moved into health benefits administration. She makes about $18 an hour now.
"I don't have any resentment towards them," she said.
In contrast, her co-worker Pina Scionti, 51, of Wethersfield, still is angry that the nursing home locked her out after she'd worked there for 19 years. It was hard to leave the residents. "They [the company] wanted the union out," she said.
Both Scionti and her 20-year-old son Tony were locked out. She ended up working at the union office.
Tony Scionti is getting married this year, and the $8,000 Pina Scionti will receive, along with the $5,000 for him, will help pay for the reception. Scionti said she is pleased that she took the opportunity to better herself, as her salary — more than twice what she made at Avery — was critical during the recession when her husband's steel fabrication work dried up.
For some former strikers, going back was tense. Some of the replacement workers were hostile. Weir said she got written up frequently after her return to work. She said she was never written up before the strike.
But she wouldn't hide her allegiance to the union, or be meek with supervisors. "I am the one always jumping in," she said, even when she worked at nonunion nursing homes early in her career.
"I used to hate the way they talked down to people because you're from another country," said Weir, who moved from Jamaica 21 years ago. "This is a 50-year-old woman or a 60-year-old woman that you should respect."
She wiped angry tears away. "I am so, so proud. We won. I say today, our fight was not in vain. Somebody listened."
"I am so, so proud. We won. I say today, our fight was not in vain. Somebody listened." Sharon Weir, below, a nurses' aide at the Avery Heights nursing home and assisted living
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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