Unhealthy Debate

There's a new and nasty labor-management war. Health care is the battlefield. San Francisco is the front line.

These employees don't have health benefits, even though they work for a hospital.

The mood in the auditorium sobers, and the discussion turns to fear. Only days ago, California Pacific CEO Martin Brotman told the workers that it was "not the right time" for them to form a union. That speech is still replaying in their heads as they take turns offering testament for and against the strike. Most of them talk about what's happened to their jobs, and how it has diminished the quality of care for patients.

"Management has screwed this place over for two years. Workers didn't do that."

"We have doubts. I've had doubts since August. ... The bottom line is that we're all scared."

"Health care is in crisis. We need to be the little engine that could."
Finally, it's time for the big event.
For the first time in hours, the room falls into dead silence as workers stand with their right arms raised in a vote that may jeopardize the only income many of them have.

They remain eerily quiet while a handful of "official observers" move through the crowd, counting votes. Dusty banners proudly displaying labor history hang from the ceiling, ghosts watching over a new era of organizing. It's hard not to be moved, regardless of how many times you've seen this same scene.

The answer is also no surprise. The nurses, aides, social workers, and therapists of Visiting Nurses and Hospice have voted to serve legal notice of a one-day strike against the company to protest its unfair labor practices. The crowd erupts into cheers and hugs. Finally comes the chant -- "Union Power!" -- loud enough, almost certainly, that the company security officers outside the hall can hear it.

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