The Union Comes to Dooly County

The Union Comes to Dooly County

By Dave Ransom

Vol. 6, No. 5, 1984, pp. 17-18

“We made history!” rejoiced Bettie Lloyd, after she and the forty-seven other workers at Rosewood Nursing Home in Byromville, Georgia–predominantly black, mostly women–voted this summer two-to-one to unionize.

She was right. By voting to become a chapter in SEIU Local 579, they were leading the way in rural south Georgia, where employers have made it clear that their distaste for unions is as strong as their appetite for low wages.

Byromville is a small town in Dooly County, a farm county of some eleven thousand people. The town’s main industries are a cotton gin, a fertilizer plant, a packing house–and the nursing home.

When local 579 staff members from Atlanta leafletted workers at the nursing home last February, they got a flurry of interested phone calls.

The Rosewood workers described arbitrary firings, low staffing, lack of respect, and incredibly low wages, remembers Peter French, the staff member who helped them organize.

The pay at Rosewood is the lowest of the three homes operated by Beverly Enterprises that Local 579 has organized in Georgia. Workers with ten or fifteen years at the home are making less than $3.65 an hour, says French. “We’re talking long-term poverty.”

Since many of the women have children to feed, and are sometimes alone in doing so, they often must hold second jobs. Some families pick fruit or work in the packing sheds during peach season “to make ends meet.”

A particularly difficult supervisor made things worse. “We figured we had to get something in to help us out,” says Jessie Bell Spivey, now chief union steward at the home.

But home workers were equally concerned about the patients. There wasn’t enough linen, they told French. Not enough clothing. Not enough food–breakfasts without eggs, dinners without meat.

“I enjoy working with old people–they really need us,” says Mrs. Spivey, a fourteen-year veteran at the home who began working the night shift years ago so she could get her children off to school in the mornings.

But the home’s administration, she said, stood between the workers and doing a good job.

The patients at Rosewood come from all across Georgia. But many are from the small towns in Dooly County, and some have been members of the congregations of the churches that home workers attend. Beverly gets the lion’s share of its income from federal Medicaid payments for these people’s care, including high ax-executive salaries and a good profit.

In effect, the good people of Dooly County are paying federal income taxes to support their old folks–only to

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have Beverly skim off their profits, leaving the old folks with meatless dinners and paying poverty wages to the people who take care of them.

When Rosewood workers began looking at the union as an answer to their problems, the home’s management didn’t take kindly to it. Twice administrators drove slowly by union meetings–held at one worker’s house trailer on a dead-end road. And they began giving supporters a hard time on the job.

When the workers’ organizing committee began handing out leaflets, Jessie Bell Spivey was one of the first to stand by the door with them. Two days later the home found a pretext to fire her. She thinks they believed she was the “main, head leader” and that getting rid of her would throw fear into other supporters and weaken the the drive.

“But they didn’t give up,” she says, proudly, “They got stronger.” The firing just strengthened their conviction that management was going to keep messing with them until they stood up against them, united.

Spivey is active in her church and the local women’s club as well as the Dooly County chapter of the NAACP. Her husband is Byromville’s only black city council member. She is known to be a good, conscientious worker. So her firing also strengthened community support for the Rosewood workers, from whites as well as blacks.

Support for the workers’ drive to organize was shown at a meeting they held at a local church. With hymns and prayers they sought the path to justice, rising to recount their mistreatment and their grievances.

George Winters, the principal of the local grade school, who remembered working as an orderly at the home, was there to give his support. The Rev. James Orange of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC) reminded them that south Georgia workers need to stick together more than anywhere else because of the animosity towards blacks getting organized.

The ministers of two local Baptist churches and Roscoe Keaton, head of the county NAACP chapter, also pledged their support.

Casting their ballots secretly in an election supervised by federal authorities, the Rosewood workers–nurse’s aides, orderlies, dietary, laundry, and maintenance workers–voted to join the union thirty-one to fifteen. Then they held a joyous victory celebration.

Additionally, Beverly investigated and reinstated Jessie Bell Spivey, with back pay. Despite their vote, many workers didn’t believe it would actually happen. “When I went back, people acted like they were crazy,” says Mrs. Spivey. That’s when she said to herself, “There’s something to it, I know there’s something to it.”

For Rosewood workers, voting for the union is only the first step towards achieving that “something.” Next–and perhaps even more difficult–is winning a legal contract with Beverly that outlines wages, benefits, working conditions.

But Local 579 President Herman Lewis, who credits a “very strong” organizing committee with the election win, thinks that their strength can also win a contract.

Tell Beverly one thing, says Mrs. Spivey: “Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you.” If management can live by that rule, she says, they will earn the goodwill of their workers and all–including patients–will benefit.

Dave Ransom is editor of Service Employee.

Editor’s note: The two-year long campaign of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) against the nation’s largest nursing-home chain, Beverly Enterprises, came to an end in March of this year with the signing of a precedent-setting agreement. Beverly, a company that disdained collective bargaining and had attempted to break SEIU unions wherever possible, has been brought to the bargaining table. The agreement ends Beverly’s strong antiunion campaign and pledges it to negotiate contracts in nursing homes where the union has won an election. As the nation’s largest union of health care workers, SEIU is getting on with the task of organizing the tens of thousands of low-paid Beverly workers who need a union contract. The March, 1984 agreement has bolstered efforts in the North and West where the SEIU already had many strong locals. In addition, an organizing campaign is underway in the South, where Beverly Enterprises has dozens of nursing homes.