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Food service workers vote to unionize at Norwalk Hospital

Rhonda Benn, center, a food service worker at Norwalk Hospital walks out of the Cornerstone Community Church on Wednesday night Aug. 09, 2023 after workers voted 45 to 3 to join a union.
Eddy Martinez
Connecticut Public
Rhonda Benn, a food service worker at Norwalk Hospital walks out of the Cornerstone Community Church on Wednesday night after workers voted 45 to 3 to join a union.

Food service workers at Norwalk Hospital voted 45-3 to form a union Wednesday night. One of them, Walter Aragon, saids he was afraid for his job when joined his coworkers in the push for a union.

But one of his sons, who is in college studying human resources, encouraged him.

“He said, ‘Dad, keep going, don’t stop,'" Aragon said.

He didn’t. He and his fellow workers sang and danced when they heard the union vote tallies.

Aragon and others started a union because they want better pay and working conditions, and they’re the latest workers in the food industry who’ve done so across the state. Advocates say the union, now known as The Food Service Workers At Norwalk Hospital, Unit 809, CHCA, can better advocate for workers. That includes negotiating a contract with their employer, Morrison Healthcare, a food services subcontractor for the hospital.

Having a union means workers, who complained of abusive treatment at the hands of management and poor pay, are protected, Aragon said.

“When there isn’t a union, there’s a lot of abuse, no one supports you,” he said.

The votes were tallied by a National Labor Relations Board employee inside the Cornerstone Community Church. She read the results to the workers, members of the Connecticut Health Care Associates, which the workers will now be a part of, and allegedly, a Morrison Healthcare manager who watched the results, and left quickly after.

“We respect the NLRB process and the decision that many employees made to be represented by the union,” a representative from Morrison Healthcare said in a provided statement, “and look forward to meeting and bargaining in good faith with the Connecticut Health Care Associates as soon as the results are certified, which is the next step in the process.”

Aragon, who fled from Guatemala in the 1980s after the military seized power in a coup during the Cold War, made a life for himself in the United States. He worked in kitchens as a chef. He looked back on his time in the country, noticing he never was a union member, and spoke of abusive managers and poor pay.

Getting a union, he said, reflected his faith in American notions of fairness.

“I always trusted American justice … that in this country, justice always triumphs,” he noted with pride his American citizenship. He said he’s not looking for handouts.

“We’re not asking for anything free. We already earned it, because we worked hard,” he said.

But it wasn't easy, according to workers and advocates. The National Labor Relations Board, which was founded in 1935 after prolonged conflict between organized labor and employers, gives workers the right to form a union and begin collective bargaining. But the CHCA alleges a union buster attempted to dissuade workers from joining, by handing out false documents attributed to the union in an attempt to confuse workers.

One of the false documents, shared with Connecticut Public by CHCA, is a supposed legal contract between CHCA and Morrison Healthcare employees. It states if workers join, the union will pay for any cost of living expenses, as well as promising no layoffs.

Dave Hannon is president of the Connecticut Health Care Associates, which the union is now tentatively a part of. He said the documents aren’t illegal, but said it was an attempt to dissuade workers from joining through to the outlandish promises being offered.

The fake documents, he said, reflected Morrison’s low opinion of their employees.

“There's a tagline that they use that they're an altogether great company to work for,” Hannon said. “And I don't see how that can be if they're lying, just blatantly lying, and not even good lies to their own employees.”

Morrison Healthcare did not respond to questions about union-busting allegations.

The union vote among food service workers at Norwalk Hospital comes as other workers in Connecticut have also begun to organize. Starbucks workers have unionized in three separate Connecticut locations this year. This, despite statistics that show food service workers are less likely to be part of a union than other industries in the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“There's still vulnerabilities … employers always have the upper hand. But, what they've demonstrated here is that when they stick together, they can win,” the CHCA's Hannon said.

Hannon said the workers will now begin to prepare for contract negotiations.

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