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New Bedford, Mass.: Union at City Hall rally: 'We need more money'
South Coast Today
Dan McDonald

March 5, 2011
View the Original Article

NEW BEDFORD — Citing paltry wages and the recent deaths of two human service workers in the state, the SEIU Local 509 staged a rally in front of City Hall late Friday morning. Union members called for higher pay and safer working conditions.

Elizabeth Bigelow, a 39-year-old who works for the Dartmouth-based Comprehensive Mental Health System Inc., summarized the march in seven words.

"We are not getting a living wage."

Bigelow provides services to mentally disabled adults in a residential setting and says the high end of the pay scale is $12.95 per hour.

The march drew more than 25 people. Some wore purple SEIU sweatshirts, while others wore purple union hats. For the better part of an hour, dozens marched in a circle while holding signs, some of which read "Human service workers need living wages." Occasionally the marchers chanted. "Workers united, we'll never be divided," was one of their mantras.

The union was rallying in support of the group's 4,000 workers who are employed by private sector vendors that are funded with public dollars.

Gail Poliquin of Westport also works for Comprehensive Mental Health System and said human service workers are "struggling to maintain a middle-class life."

She said such workers in Local 509 received a 1 percent raise during the last five years. Poliquin said the raise was tantamount to a "medium cup of coffee."

She described her job as "serving the people whom most of the community has forgotten."

Dennis MacDonald, a Local 509 chapter president, said Gov. Deval Patrick avoided a strike in 2008 by telling the union more funds to certain state programs would result in a raise in pay.

MacDonald said the economy tanked later that year and the union is still waiting on a raise. He said Local 509 has between 400 and 500 members in Greater New Bedford.

Sandra Andrade, who works for a New Bedford group home for the mentally challenged, said, "Our work is very hard, demanding and fulfilling and we need to be supported by the government."

No one from the union said exactly how large of a raise they wanted and no one used specific dollar figures in talking about looming cuts.

State Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral, D-New Bedford, addressed the crowd with a sobering assessment, telling picketers the state is in fiscal crisis and that "we know some areas are going to be cut."

"I can't pledge we're going to get you money," Cabral said.

Cabral spoke of the importance of "communicating priorities" during the budget process.

As Cabral finished his remarks, Jon Grossman, a staff member of the union, yelled, "Take the money from the rich people."

State Sen. Mark C.W. Montigny, D-New Bedford, also spoke to the crowd, acknowledging there was "no good news coming out of Washington, D.C., or Boston."

He added, "Even in difficult times, it's a matter of priorities."

Multiple marchers mentioned the slayings of two human service workers within a 10-day span in January. A residential counselor at a group home in Revere was allegedly murdered by a mentally troubled man who lived at the group home, while in Lowell, a homeless shelter worker was allegedly stabbed to death by a homeless teenager.

MacDonald was among those to suggest that higher staffing levels may have prevented the tragedies.

Not everyone was local or in Local 509.

Ariane Martin, 32, of New Bedford held a placard and marched in a circle, despite belonging to a different SEIU local. She said she attended the rally to show solidarity with her fellow workers.

Asked how the cash-strapped state could afford to give raises, Martin did not hesitate with her answer. "Raise taxes," she said.

Bob Fitzgerald, 64, of Marshfield said he works two human service jobs, which total 60 hours of toil every week. His job pays about $11.90 per hour. He says he has been working in the industry for about 35 years.

"We're so underpaid," said Fitzgerald, who marched. "You want people to be able to feed their kids."