Strikers at West River upbeat, determined

A sample sign carried by striking union workers at West River Health Care in Milford Tuesday morning

More than 100 workers at West River Health Care in Milford were expected to join picket lines outside the facility on Tuesday. Around 10:15 a.m., there were roughly 50 people standing outside the facility protecting what they saw are unfair labor practices at the facility, owned by New Jersey-based HealthBridge Management. Workers said a set of “last, best and final” working conditions imposed last month on the facility’s union workers are unfair and illegal.

Michelle Baricko, of Ansonia, has worked at HealthBridge nearly 20 years as a certified nurses aide and said the new conditions are insulting. Though HealthBridge has stated that the new guidelines provide a raise to workers, the union argues that the company is also taking away a lot from employees, including insurance contributions, pension contributions and vacation time.

“They’ve taken away everything,” Baricko said. “I was at five weeks of vacation, and now I’m down to two and a half.”

West River was one of five HealthBridge facilities to hit the picket lines Tuesday. About 700 workers at the care centers — which also include spots in Westport, Stamford, Newington and Danbury — went on strike. The workers are represented by New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199. Union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff said the last strike of this magnitude she remembers took place in 2001.

The union and HealthBridge have been entangled in a contentious relationship for some time. The “last, best and final” offer came after the parties couldn’t agree on a contract after more than a year of negotiations. Late last year, workers at West River were actually locked out of the facility for more several weeks. They had only been back to work a few months when the new conditions were implemented and the strike vote taken.

“It’s been terrible,” said Debbie Wolf of Milford, a nurses’ aide for 19 years. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Workers at West River were caring union flags and signs bearing such slogans as “Be Fair to Those Who Care.” One woman, Cindy Bain, another CNA, was singing into a megaphone while leading a picket line around one of the care center driveways. One song, set to the tune of “I’ve working on the railroad” featured the lyrics “We’ve been working in this picket line, all the live long day.”

Amanda Cuda