By Henry Nicholas

For many years, Philadelphia has contracted with outside entities for medical services for inmates in the prisons. Today, the city contracts with Corizon, a for-profit company based in Tennessee and Missouri. My union, District 1199C, represents the professional, technical, and clerical workers who provide the care.

Our members are covered by three contracts that were extended to Nov. 26. Negotiations for renewals of these agreements began in May. The union has made a concerted effort to reach an agreement, but unfortunately has not had a good-faith partner in Corizon. Unfortunately for the inmates, for the city, and for our members, a strike beginning on Dec. 13 now seems like a real possibility. In the many years that 1199C has represented workers at the prison, we have never reached this point. Why now?

On Nov. 25, Corizon gave the union its "best and final offer." That offer included replacing health insurance with a "corporate health exchange" that would make it impossible for the union to negotiate what type of health insurance would be available or how much members would pay. Under this plan, members would have to pay thousands of dollars more per year in premiums or for medical services and prescription drugs. Corizon would save $560,000. For months, Corizon claimed there was no alternative to the exchange. When that proved not to be true, it refused to consider an alternative. Now Corizon is threatening that anyone not signed up for the exchange will have no health insurance, effective Jan. 1. Many members are now at risk of losing insurance coverage.

Corizon offered wage increases and bonuses, but they don't begin to offset the cost of greatly reduced health-care benefits. Essentially, Corizon proposes to pick the back pockets of members, stuff the money in their front pockets, and call it a wage increase. That is a cynical move.

Corizon is trying to pull the same move on the city. It currently provides services under four one-year, renewable contracts. This year's contracts, and the next two, are based on anticipated results of union negotiations and assume wage increases for union members of 2.5 percent and increases to Corizon's health-care costs of 12 percent each year. Those contracts call for increased payments for personnel of about 3 percent each year. Corizon has chosen to provoke a strike by not passing on any of that increase.

A strike by health-care workers at the prison would not be good - not for the inmates for whom our members care, and not for the city, which would incur unneeded costs and get substandard service for its money. Virtually all of the hundreds of workers employed by the city at the prison are also members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), as are the members of District 1199C. A strike against Corizon at the prison would unavoidably create havoc.

Though Corizon has ignored the union's call for continued negotiations, we believe a strike is avoidable and have agreed to live with a contract within the 3 percent parameters in Corizon's contract with the city. We are willing to have disputes about the cost of an agreement resolved through arbitration. However, if Corizon plans to spend the increases in its city contracts that are meant for workers on something else, or keep the money for itself, it's hard to see how a strike can be avoided. That would be a sad day for Philadelphia.

Henry Nicholas is president of District 1199C, National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, AFSCME, AFL-CIO. Contact him via www.1199cnuhhce.org.