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The Hospital Workers: “The Best Contract Anywhere”?

But there were other factors. The union is growing rapidly in cities outside New York. From the point of view of the national union, the most desirable outcome was a favorable settlement without a strike. The leaders were worried as well about community support. During the 1968 campaign for a $100 minimum wage, the “community”—the media, and liberal and civil rights organizations—had supported the union heavily. It was not clear that they would endorse closing the hospitals over a demand for $140, which has a way of seeming like a lot of money for a “service” worker.

There was as well a contrary fear. It was July. The members were black. A strike could unleash a riot in the black community—too much support, rather than too little—and, apart from intrinsic losses, 1199’s image as the instrument of peaceful progress would be badly tarnished. Thus among the leadership there was little enthusiasm for a strike, only a determination to do it if necessary. I believe that they were genuinely uncertain whether the battle between the state and the hospitals would be resolved without one.


The union began to mobilize in the middle of June. The first event was a mass meeting of the membership. This was a delicate affair for the leadership because at contract expiration time members come to a meeting who never participate in other union functions and who are not as disciplined or experienced in the ways of the union as the regular delegates are, nor as responsive to the leaders. The chief business of the meeting was for the members to adopt the leaders’ policy and vote authorization to the negotiating committee to “take any action it saw fit” on July 1, if an acceptable settlement were not yet reached.

The leadership’s tactic of postponing until the last minute the announcement of what tactics would in fact be employed was reasonable and sound. It was the only way the union had of maintaining its flexibility and its credibility with management. It pretty much fit the facts as the union had seen them from the beginning (and which had never been concealed): that the $140 minimum as well as the other demands were negotiating positions, and that it did not want a strike if an offer were made that came close to meeting those demands.

The plan was adopted, as the leadership intended: it is in firm control of the union. But at one moment it seemed as if the opposition could sway the undisciplined members. At this meeting the leadership’s attitude toward the opposition—which on minor matters had seemed to me throughout the spring to be irrational—revealed itself to have a logical base. The leadership needed the commitment of the members to its flexible tactics if it was to accomplish its ends.

The “opposition” in 1199 is of two kinds. One form of opposition comes from the Young Lords. Some Lords work in hospitals, and they have organized a Health Revolutionary Unity Movement around a few hospitals. When they oppose the union it is on the grounds that the union does not take an interest in the quality of health care or its availability in the ghettos. They believe that the union focuses on the narrowly defined interests of its members in their role as workers, but ignores the interests of the larger community of which they are also members. The Lords’ opposition to the union is generally extra-parliamentary. They would like to change the leadership’s policies, not control the organization.

But the real “opposition” within the union, the opposition that called forth the most self-serving, hysterical, and undemocratic behavior on the part of the leadership, is opposition of a different kind. It was always called “Trotskyist,” though I could never figure out exactly what that meant. It was small and militant and appeared principally in a parliamentary form as a handful of people who would try to sway the direction of meetings. In the spring its spokesmen proposed to strike over an alleged job freeze in the hospitals. At the time of the negotiations their position was “$140 or strike.” They wanted that position clearly stated in advance as non-negotiable as had been the $100 demand in 1968.

I am not sure what the actual motives of the opposition were. The leadership believed that their strategy was simply to create dissension between the leaders and the members on the theory that the leaders were suppressing the workers’ innate militance. The leaders believed that the “Trots” would use any issue they could to create unrest and had no interest in the $140 minimum in itself. That analysis appeared to me to be essentially correct. The Trots’ specific moves seemed to rest on a sectarian conviction that workers’ strikes will naturally have revolutionary implications.

On the other hand, the opposition to the opposition was itself fed by a sectarianism left over from the Thirties: if something is identified as “Trotskyist” it has to be seen as a dangerous deviation even if what it is deviating from has little connection to what the issues had once been. The leadership believed that it was not in the best interests of the union’s members to go out on strike. And it is true, as one member said more eloquently than I can paraphrase, that the opposition’s spokesmen were white, middleclass technicians—laboratory or x-ray specialists, for example—with much more mobility and money than the majority of the workers they were encouraging to strike. But it is also true that the members responded warmly to the militant position and in that sense the Trotskyists’ perception that the leadership suppresses militance is accurate. What the opposition had to offer, however, was far less substantial than the real gains that following the union’s strategy virtually guaranteed.

In any event, when the union’s resolution was being explained, a spokesman for the opposition rose. She was Melody Phillips, a wan, thin technician from Beth Israel whose political determination seems to see her through situations in which the hostility would intimidate someone less resolute. She argued that the workers needed $140 and not a penny less and that it should be made clear that failure to obtain it would mean a strike. The toughness of her exposition made the union’s position seem wishy-washy. The members—remember, these are the inexperienced members—gave her a genuinely enthusiastic response. A staff member rose to say that Melody’s proposal had been voted down in her own unit at Beth Israel. Other people began to rise, shouting and waving their arms. Davis screamed into the microphone: “This isn’t a display of discipline or unity, it’s a disgrace. This union is going to be democratic and no one is going to destroy it by shouting everyone down.” So he shouted everyone down.

He seemed to see that he needed help from the ranks, and introduced Hilda Joquin, a Bermuda-born black woman from the Beth Israel kitchen who went on strike with the union when it began and has been loyal to it ever since. She spoke for about ten minutes. These excerpts do little justice to her fiery spirit, eloquence, and passion.

Listen. I been in this union since 1959. A lot of them was just crawlin’ around. They don’t know what the hospitals was, they don’t know what the union was, is. They sittin’ around in big jobs gettin’ more money than I am and I’ve been around for twenty years. It took me eighteen years to get $100. You don’t know nothin’ about labor. It took the rank and file, the unskilled, to bring them around. We respect everyone’s opinion but we don’t like these young whippersnappers comin’ around here. Who are they? (Chorus: Workers.) They never sat across from those bosses, they don’t know nothin’. These are our leaders. What other union has built up from nothin’ to be 40,000 members?

Everything she said was true, and the members knew it. There were more shrieks and shouts. Then Davis spoke again, in his customary Russian-Brooklyn oratory, petulant and powerful at the same time. The speech itself captures both his self-serving quality and the logic behind it better than a paraphrase could explain.

I’ve put my life into this union. I won’t permit company stooges, liars, spies, this display by a small, insignificant group to show we’re divided. [Growing more passionate.] When people had to go to jail, I was there, where were they? I was there in Charleston, I stand to go again on July 1. [Hospital strikes are illegal, though that never bothered anyone.] No sonuvabitch is going to accuse me of being soft on management. I’d never betray the trust these members place in me. This is the finest union God ever created—it was created by all of us. We’re powerful but if we don’t know how to use our power we’ll be destroyed. We must love each other, defend each other, be concerned with each other.

The bosses would enjoy you trying to destroy the leadership. If you don’t want me I’ll get out, but don’t destroy the union. When we make the decision to strike we’ll strike goddamn hard but we’ll make goddamn sure it’s good for our members. Not because some people would like to strike for the summer. We’re proposing to keep management on pins and needles, to decide about each hospital on July 1. If they take us on, it’ll be the last time. This country spends billions to kill; we just want millions to live. We’re never going to go down on our knees again.

The passage of the resolution was something of an anticlimax.

The next mass meeting posed a similar problem although it was confined to delegates. Its official business was also delicate. The leaders and the committee had decided that the best way to put pressure on the hospitals was to arrange for a series of demonstrations before the contract expired. The contract expired at midnight on a Tuesday. The preceding Friday, the delegates at each hospital were to go en masse to the hospital administrators and demand that they return to the bargaining table. On Monday, all the workers were to stage a one-hour, noontime walk out. The problem was to prepare the members to do exactly what they were supposed to do. That is, they had to be willing both to walk out and to go back to work: militant and angry but not too militant or angry.

Both maneuvers were executed with extraordinary skill and effectiveness. In many places they were directed entirely by the workers. They were as precise and as exciting a demonstration of the disciplined use of political power as any demonstrations I have ever seen. Anomie was overcome, collective power was very much in the air. The demonstrations carried an unmistakable message that hospital workers would no longer be pushed around. The members’ ability to convey that message rested wholly on the union.

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