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The Hospital Workers: “The Best Contract Anywhere”?

The meeting at which these tactics were to be described was stormy. The Rank and File Committee, the “Trot” organization, was distributing a leaflet outside asserting that Davis was afraid to face the bosses. He was upset, seemed upset, or acted upset in order to handle the situation:

This is the most serious business that we ever have to deal with: how we are going to manage to live for the next two years. Some people think it’s the opportunity for acts of irresponsibility, acts of division when we need unity, acts of cowardice when we need courage, acts of lies when we need the truth. My whole life has been devoted to the struggle of working people. Now I find that I don’t want to fight.

For them to make this accusation at this time…. I represent you. I have to have support and unity. Anybody that sticks a knife in my back is sticking it in yours.

Frankly, it would be no great loss if I fell by the wayside, but let it be after the negotiations and not before. This is no time to divide and destroy, because of some youngsters that are sick mentally, sick physically. Our members are getting sick of it. No union in the country elects a negotiating committee from the rank and file. They are authorized and no one else to decide to bring the contract before the members of our union. What they say is law to myself and everybody else.

There will be no division because we are facing a crucial time. We will not permit anyone to create the impression outside that this union is weak, divided. We can’t afford it because we’re too damn strong and united.

Again, in a Davis performance the concrete necessity of unity and leadership is inseparable from its self-serving quality; the rational calculation from the overreactive, sectarian fear; the real from the histrionic; the truth from the falsehoods.

The rest of the meeting was filled with parliamentary manipulation. Staff members, acting out a new tactic previously decided on, paraded to the microphone to help channel the members’ thoughts in the direction the leadership needed. But Davis had already succeeded in making the Trotskyist faction appear to be a deadly enemy. His animosity to them had been transferred to the members. Thus when Melody bravely rose to the microphone she was shouted down even before she began to speak. Loud boos erupted and in the chaos Davis stepped grandly to the microphone: “No. Quiet. Let’s be democratic. Let’s listen to the sister. In this union everyone’s going to have the chance to speak.” Defense of the right to dissent never rested in more disingenuous hands. Nonetheless, that was the state of the union as the July 1 deadline drew near.

Twice during the few days before the contract expired management came back into the talks with offers: once for a 6 percent increase in each year of a three-year contract, once for an 8 percent, two-year arrangement. Both times Davis threw them out. Once he threw a microphone at the chief hospital negotiator. Another time he reached new heights—or depths—of earthiness: “You know what you can do with your forty-two demands? Shove one up each of you so there’ll be fair and equal distribution. And we have a committee here that’s ready to help.” Both displays were carefully calculated and of excellent theatrical value. They were designed to bring the talks to an unceremonious close while there was still time for them to be reopened. They permitted both sides to greet the waiting reporters with doleful prophecies meant to intensify the political struggle. “It will be a miracle if a strike can be avoided” was the line of both sides.

On Tuesday evening the delegates assembled at the New Yorker Hotel to begin the long wait to a countdown. The negotiators came over from the Roosevelt to open the meeting. Davis urged discipline, preparation for midnight action. Melody got up to speak and chaos erupted. Davis returned to the negotiations. A group of Young Lords made an unusual mass appearance distributing copies of their paper stating their case against 1199 and listing their demands. They tried to argue that money gains unaccompanied by long-range plans for upgrading the workers did not offer genuine security in an inflationary period; that hospitals affect their surrounding communities as much in their role of land buyers as in their role as providers of medical services; and that workers needed a stronger role in running the union.

No one would, or could, listen. The Lords got caught up in the general disruption provoked by Melody. Staff members, exhausted, all their energies directed toward protecting the unity they believed the union would need in the hours ahead, became enraged. Screaming matches began. Fistfights were started and barely stopped. By that time all the concentration of the members present was focused on the single issue with which America, and the structure of labor, makes them deal: money. By that time they were totally dependent on the union. It was the only instrument that existed through which they could get not just what they’d been told they needed but what they needed in fact. The vision of the Lords seemed too general and, therefore, irrelevant. The Lords were talking what seemed like rhetoric. The members needed the machinery, the system, the pre-established processes through which gains, however small, could be realized. The Lords were thrown out.

In the New Yorker Hotel people sat playing cards, eating and drinking, sharing their food and drink. Some made tactical plans for shutting down their buildings. A middle-aged white member from Albert Einstein Hospital tried to revive memories of another time, leading the crowd in a lusty version of “We’re gonna roll the union on.” It fell flat. He was the only one who knew the words. Some of the younger members and staff clustered in a stair well to sing black music. Older people sang “We Shall Overcome.” The spirit was good.

The midnight deadline came and went. Leaders and troops, stationed in different hotels, were in sporadic telephone contact. They kept telling the members to wait. At 5 AM union and management were still in separate rooms. A staff member was sent over, a tall, proud black man once described to me as a leading theoretical Marxist in another time. He was gentle, but capable of great anger. He said the talks were “hopelessly deadlocked”; the battle was on. Members from the hospitals where the contract had actually expired should go to the hospitals and set up picket lines. The day shift should be kept from entering. But the members should first check in at the Roosevelt for last minute news before their strike action actually began. The delegates, exhausted from the nearly twelve hours of waiting at the New Yorker, cheered at the news of a strike. They gathered themselves together and set out for the long treks back to their hospitals in Brooklyn, Flushing, Queens.

At 5:25 AM a settlement was reached. As workers called in from the faraway posts they had reached through the early morning vagaries of the New York subway and bus systems, they were given the news: it’s over, come on back. What happened? One view among the staff (whose information, like mine, was for the most part incomplete) was that the strike threat had had to become more real before management would come to heel. According to this theory, in spite of the certainty within the union that we would in fact strike, the bureaucrats doubted that the union would carry out the threat.

The official view, expressed privately later, was that the settlement was “our package.” “We virtually dictated the terms of the settlement,” one official commented to me. Others believed that the terms of the settlement were dictated by Rockefeller. Whatever the case, the circumstances made pawns of the exhausted members, who had to drag themselves back to their hospitals and then return to the city at dawn. If a deal could be made at 5:25 AM, why could it not have been made at 4:55 before the trek began? More important, if a deal were going to be made anyway, why could it not have been made days or weeks before, leaving union and management with free time before the deadline to discuss substantial issues other than money?

Between 5 AM when the strike was ordered and 5:25 when it was called off, Davis had what I believe was his only private conference with McDonnell, the mediator. My guess (and it is only that) is that Davis must have clearly stated the union’s rock-bottom demands: a $130 minimum, a dental insurance plan, Martin Luther King’s birthday as a holiday, and a few others. McDonnell probably decided that these were reasonable, and then urged the hospitals to accept them. The hospitals may then have interpreted McDonnell’s recommendation as a veiled promise of reimbursement from Rockefeller. So far as I know, the negotiating committee was not consulted about the reduction of the minimum demands.

Whose” settlement it was is less important than the fact that no one at the top of either pyramid knew all the moves of the game. Neither side fully understood the political calculations the other was making. The economic questions were not openly faced. No one ever knew what the available resources either were or ought to have been. Throughout the negotiations shrewd guesses were made but they were only guesses. It seemed to me that nothing substantial—nothing, that is, beyond money, nothing that would open up new options—could come out of this pudding of concealment, competition, lies, and personal and political egotism. The negotiations were capable of producing only a once-over-lightly amelioration. Furthermore, the effect of such a process on the internal workings of an organization which ought to be democratic is devastating. It creates the demand for strong leadership—for hierarchical machinery shaped like 1199’s—and will succeed only in so far as that demand is supplied.

The grand finale to the settlement, the triumphal return of the leaders to the reassembled body of delegates, unfolded like a pageant. Davis strolled up to the podium, the hero who is also a man of the people, stopping along the way for hugs and kisses. He made a solemn, rambling speech about good feeling on the bargaining committee, then introduced Doris Turner, “our wonderful executive vice-president.”

…the person who personifies hospital workers more than anyone, herself a hospital worker. You can see yourselves in her more than in me for she is one of you in every way, she’ll be with you for many more years than I will. It’s wonderful to have leadership coming from the ranks because that’s the leadership in the long run that counts. I don’t intend to retire tomorrow but it’s our responsibility to get new leadership and you should show them your loyalty and appreciation as she does for you every day.

It’s a great distinction for her to bring you word of this contract, the best contract in the country for any group of workers anywhere—the best contract for any group of workers anywhere. [Applause. Remember: the workers don’t know what it is yet.] She has a distinction because this will go down in history as the $100 did two years ago. This is a new milestone. There’ll be millions of workers, not only you, who won’t become rich or wealthy but who’ll take a step forward. Many workers will look to you for your intelligence, your understanding, your good will, your building a fine union.

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