By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter
WAUWATOSA, Wis. — Supportive Homecare Options owner Sally Sprenger shook her head Thursday as she watched about 75 Big Labor supporters participate in a Service Employees International Union-organized protest near her firm’s headquarters.
Seeing only two of her company’s nearly 1,200 employees taking part in the rally told her all she needed to know about SEIU’s motives.
“My employees are not interested in this,” Sprenger said as she stood across the street from the demonstration. “This is only about the union padding their bottom line.”
But politicians and labor organizers were feeding the picketers much different information.
SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin President Dian Palmer, Milwaukee County Supervisor David Bowen and Wisconsin Jobs Now Executive Director Jennifer Addison revved up the protesters with loud claims that Supportive Homecare Options is not paying a fair wage and is attacking workers’ rights.
But the private company, which has a contract with the Milwaukee County Department of Family Care, doesn’t get any say on the minimum wage of its employees. That’s the responsibility of the county agency, which has set the minimum wage for this year at $10.27 an hour, more than $3 higher than the state minimum wage.
And when Sprenger entered the crowd to try to explain that she has already signed off on her employees making the mandated Milwaukee County “living wage” of $11.32 an hour, she was essentially turned away from speaking.
Some demonstrators called Sprenger a union buster and told her she should be ashamed of herself. Another protester asked, “How do you sleep at night?”
Milwaukee County Supervisor Deanna Alexander, who has called out SEIU for using Bowen to request an audit of Supportive Homecare Options, also was at the rally handing out flyers with details about the living wage and union negotiations she says SEIU is not openly discussing.
Milwaukee County’s living wage law, which was written by Bowen with help from SEIU-affiliated officials, includes a provision that exempts county-contracted companies from paying the living wage if the employer agrees to a contract with a labor union.
Sprenger said she was told by SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin Staff Director Bonnie Strauss in December, when collective-bargaining negotiations began, that she wouldn’t have to provide the living wage if she forced all her staff to become dues-paying union members. That would mean $300,000 in additional yearly revenue for SEIU, according to Sprenger.
But the provision in the living-wage legislation would lead to workers bring home less money because they’d earn the same hourly wage while having to pay union dues and other fees.
“They’ve over there yelling things like, ‘We’re mad as hell,’ but I don’t think they even know what they are mad about,” Alexander said of the demonstrators. “(SEIU is) dragging things into it that has nothing to do with the real issue at hand, which is the union is telling their employees that a government contractor is trying to hurt them, when the reality is, the union has made deals, arrangements and influenced laws that hurt the employees.”
Alexander was able to distribute ajust a few of her pamphlets because she often was obstructed by the crowd.
But when Alexander was successful in wading through shoulders and swear words, union representatives were quick to snatch the flyers away from clenched hands.
Several protesters deliberately stood of front of Wisconsin Reporter with signs held high to prevent video footage of the speakers.
Palmer, who asked Bowen to propose the audit of Supportive Homecare Options at a county committee meeting late last month, ignored Wisconsin Reporter’s requests for comment by walking quickly in the other direction until a sign-carrying demonstrator was able to block her path.
Palmer hasn’t responded to at least 30 calls and emails from Wisconsin Reporter during the past week.
Just more than 300 Supportive Homecare Options employees are voluntary members of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin. But Sprenger said she isn’t going to cave in to SEIU’s demands of full “union support” because she wants her staff to have a choice.
Sprenger said her company’s employees would have joined the union already if they wanted, and she wasn’t aware of any personnel asking for time off of work to attend Thursday’s protest.
“I think they would rather be serving their clients,” Sprenger said.
Supportive Homecare Options Director Michael Nass told Wisconsin Reporter he has fielded very few complaints from employees who have issues with their work surroundings. He said he gets more calls from workers questioning why SEIU keeps calling and texting them or visiting their homes.
“The employees are telling me that they don’t feel like they need to be a part of that because they are satisfied with us, their employer, with their working conditions,” Nass said.