Members of a major union at Kaleida Health System called on Kaleida to come to agreement on employee retirement benefits, a sticking point in contract talks.
Hundreds of members of Local 1199 Service Employees International Union Health Care Workers East and their supporters blew whistles and chanted as they marched Tuesday to a field near the Larkin at Exchange building. The office complex is home to Kaleida's human resources and finance departments.
"We're not standing around anymore and working our whole lives and walking away without a decent pension," said George Gresham, president of the New York City-based union, which has about 300,000 members.
About 3,200 members of Local 1199 work at Kaleida, the largest share of them at Women and Children's Hospital. Workers represented by the union include registered nurses and nurse practitioners, administrative workers and maintenance personnel.
The most recent contract between the two sides expired May 31. Union members at Tuesday's rally sought to frame the pension dispute as an issue with implications beyond their own finances.
"We have given a lifetime of service to this community," said Sandra Harmon, a registered nurse at Women and Children's Hospital for 38 years. "We have loved your children and your families like our own. Sometimes they came before our own families."
Annie Lewis, a certified nursing assistant at Buffalo General Hospital for 13 years, said the pension issue touches neighborhoods. A good pension allows people to keep up their homes when they retire, she said.
"If you work hard, you should be able to stay in your home and in the community when you retire," Lewis said.
Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, offered to act as a mediator to help the two sides reach an agreement. He noted that the union and Kaleida had shown cooperation before, in keeping Women and Children's Hospital open at its current location.
"I submit that the same can happen in this case," Hoyt said after the rally.
Local 1199 wants to shift to a union-administered pension plan that the union says would provide better coverage for its members. The union also says there is inequity in the system, contending in some cases, employees in the same building or in the same job title will receive different benefits. Kaleida has called what the union has asked for "irresponsible and beyond the financial reality of Western New York."
"They want us to move to a downstate pension plan that is simply unaffordable and could bankrupt our organization," Kaleida said in a statement this week.
Franchelle Hart, a union spokeswoman, estimated more than 900 people attended the rally. Gresham pledged to return to Buffalo with larger numbers of supporters if the dispute isn't resolved.
"I give you my word, as your president, that they won't be able to hold us here in this space if we have to come back here again," he said.