UFCW strikers use robo-calls in labor-state

Annoying political tactic from RICO-challenged union may backfire with public

Thousands of households are getting phone calls from striking workers at a nursing home in northern Ohio seeking support in their labor fight over wages and benefits. Long used by politicians, automated or "robo" calling is gaining momentum in the labor movement, experts said.

The 90-second calls on behalf of workers at Hillside Acres nursing home in Willard - voiced by the union steward - urge people to call the home's owner "and tell her to do the right thing" and negotiate with strikers.

Jeff Stephens of UFCW Local 911 in Toledo said pickets have told him that a few people have gone to the picket line to show their support because of the calls. The local represents 31 employees at the nursing home, including the 21 who have been on strike since May.

A sister union in Cincinnati used the robo technique in a contract dispute last year with grocer Kroger Co.

Robo calling on nonpolitical issues is a new idea for labor that could prove very effective, said Harley Shaiken, a labor specialist at the University of California-Berkeley who had heard of the tactic being used in a West Coast grocery chain dispute.

"It's an attempt to reach out to the community," Shaiken said. "Forty years ago, a strike was won or lost on the picket lines. Today, it can be won or lost in the community as well."

Robo calls are widely used by telemarketers, bill collectors and nonprofit fundraisers and are disdained by many recipients. They are banned or restricted in some states.

But robo dialing is popular with users because it is cheaper than hiring people to place calls. Some companies that advertise robo service charges 1 cent per call to deliver a 15 second message.

Gene Carroll, a union expert at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, called the tactic a smart use of technology.

"That's what labor has to do in this era, create electronic pickets," Carroll said. "I would say it's a maturing, a cutting edge tactic."

Neither Carroll nor Elaine Bernard, director of the Harvard Trade Union Program, said they knew of robo calling being used outside of political campaigns.

The calls to Ohio households on behalf the Willard nursing home workers include the name and e-mail address of Linda Black-Kurek, president of Liberty Health Care, which owns 15 nursing homes in the state.

"I hope enough people hear it and put pressure on (her) to sit down with us," said Sandy Grossman, who organized the United Food and Commercial Workers unit at Hillside Acres five years ago.

Black-Kurek did not return a call seeking comment. A woman who answered the phone at Black-Kurek's office said some people had called because of the robo calls.

UFCW Local 1099 in Cincinnati arranged for about 200,000 calls to be placed in counties where Liberty Health Care has nursing homes, said spokeswoman Brigid Kelly.

"They've been doing it for political campaigns and some of their organizing," Stephens said. "When they heard there were some (Liberty) homes in their area, they offered it to us."

Liberty's headquarters are in Dayton, about 50 miles north of Cincinnati.

"Unions increasingly take their issues to a broader public," said Dan Swinney, executive director of the Chicago-based Center for Labor and Community Research


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