Unions exist to negotiate contracts, to set out the terms under which workers will supply their services until the next negotiations. They are not designed to free Joan Bird, de-pollute the environment, elect John Lindsay, or end the war. Gestures made in these directions are peripheral, undertaken by the leadership of Local 1199, Drug and Hospital Union in New York—as well as by other unions—because the leaders can see as well as anyone else the connection between the security of their members and the state of the world, and because they feel responsible for directing leftover energies and resources to useful ends.
The heart of the union, however, is contract negotiations. The contract justifies the very existence of the union, justifies the building of buildings, the payment of salaries; it justifies the officers and is the excuse for, if not the source of, their power; it also justifies the dues the workers pay to support the structure. A good contract is what holds the union together, giving the blacks and whites, the Puerto Rican porters and the Jewish technicians a common interest. Most important, the contract is the spring of all real gain: it is the source of additional money, of dental insurance, of pensions, of vacations. You have only to be around a union at contract expiration time to feel what an emotional, as well as a political and practical, watershed it is.
During contract negotiation time all the chickens in a union’s barnyard come home to roost. The union’s history and character come together and are revealed as having a functional, not an arbitrary, source. This was certainly true of 1199. Patterns that seemed abstractly “authoritarian,” rooted in power hunger, egotism, or sectarian conceptions of structure, seemed, while the contract was at stake, to make perfect sense. Factionalism or opposition to the leadership, however idealistically inspired, seems when it occurs at this stage to border on treachery: Will not disruption risk the unity needed to face down the bosses? As a result the settlement might be unfavorable, a matter not just of loss of credibility for the leadership and the union, but of overwhelming practical consequence to the members: the workers won’t get what in fact they desperately need. They won’t get it this time, and the power of the union will be compromised in the future. Immediate interests are at stake.
These things are so because of the adversary nature of collective bargaining in America. Capitalism rewards workers not according to need but according to the power of their organizations to threaten or disrupt. There are lights, cameras, smoke-filled rooms, clustering reporters, political machinations, all-night waits, exhaustion. The leaders need endurance, oratorical skill, and technical understanding. They must be equally at home in the bureaucratic regions of the managers and in the field commanding their own troops. During 1199’s talks with the hospitals the problems of negotiation were very much exaggerated because of the way hospital services are financed: the …