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The Hospital Workers: “The Best Contract Anywhere”?

Thus were the union’s old positions reiterated—this is how you are to think about your union, your lives, America—and thus was the union’s position on the new contract defined.

Doris Turner read the terms of the settlement, for which there was no great immediate enthusiasm. People were tired (it was 8 AM), the terms were complex, not easily understood. It was too fast, too soon. The union’s propaganda machinery had not yet had time to do its work, to define the victory, express the jubilation. Then Doris Turner made a personal speech of her own, ending with a tribute to Davis which was both accurate and revealing.

I want to tell you about our president, and think the delegates will agree, about our president and the kind of job he does for us. On behalf of hospital workers I don’t think there’s anything in the world he couldn’t do. In these terrible and lengthy negotiations, with all the discomforts and all the abuse and mistreatment that we all received, he took the brunt of it. He stood up like the president of 1199 should in my opinion, he answered for us, he spoke for us, he fought for us, and he won for us. We are all, or at least we should all, be very proud of our president and if he does nothing else in the next two years all he has to do in my opinion is come around at negotiation time and bring us home these kinds of settlements.

He answered for us, he spoke for us, he fought for us, and he won for us.” That is the good and bad truth about 1199.

III

1199’s contract with the hospitals was not a sellout as the opposition within the union charged. Whether it was “the best contract in the country for any group of workers anywhere” only a labor statistician could say. But for the group of workers it involved, and given the history of the industry from which it came, the contract was, as we said in the magazine in enormous type, a “TERRIFIC VICTORY.”

Nonetheless, the question remains what it was in the beginning. Is the union making a substantial contribution to change? The leadership’s conviction that it is rests chiefly on a trickle-down theory of wage gains. They believe that gains won in the New York hospitals will influence the wage structure of other industries employing unskilled, non-white laborers. But this measure, even if correct, is insufficient. It does no good for wages to rise if inflation makes the increments useless, if the skies are so black it is dangerous to breathe, if housing deteriorates and the subways on which the workers ride to work collide, if one son of a worker dies in Vietnam and another of an overdose in Harlem. It does no good to hitch your wagon to a star that is burning itself out.

The answer is not simply, therefore, that the workers should take to the streets. Members of 1199 are not like middle-class radicals who have far greater freedom and other resources stuffed into innumerable hidden crevices of their lives. The workers have lives to lead which they do not have the mobility to change. They have families to sustain. In getting money to support themselves they have made real progress. The problem of evaluation is therefore difficult. Apart from a few propagandists (who fall into every political camp) no one is certain how change will come. No one knows exactly how an institution committed to change should behave. No one can be certain what is real and important or what is “part of the problem.” With this uncertainty judgments about effectiveness and relevance should be made with some humility.

One criterion is clear. It makes no difference whether 1199’s Executive Council passes resolutions condemning repression, Julius Hoffman, the use of the National Guard in the postal strike, or the murdering of children at Kent State. It makes relatively little difference even that the union gives money for the legal defense of the Panthers. These flourishes so little affect political reality that it is a wonder that people bother to do them at all. The union does them for the reason countless other organizations do: because people feel less trapped if they have devised some vehicle, however inadequate, to express their moral outrage.

But not only do these pronouncements and contributions fail to affect political reality, they are done in a way that cannot serve even to educate the union’s members. To the members they appear as resolutions composed in a board room, designed to be echoed. They are occasional statements; short paragraphs in the magazine that convey an attitude without illuminating causes. They float down out of nowhere; they are not connected with any sustained effort of communication or education on the part of the staff.

It does not tell us much, therefore, to leaf through the annals of 1199 and conclude that its stands are progressive, its record honorable. That alone does not make it part of the solution. At the same time, however, conventional radical critiques of the union—including ones which I myself shared and argued about with people when I was there—also seem to me faulty. An example: On the issue of the war, I—and other radicals—condemned the union for failing to make the most of an opportunity presented by the Kent-Cambodia spring to solidify an alliance with New York’s striking students into a permanent labor-student coalition. We saw that such a coalition would be difficult because of the different histories, different styles, different needs, and mutual prejudices of the members of each group—differences in kinds of apparent radicalism—and we thought that to overcome the differences by concerted effort and mutual understanding would be a genuine breakthrough, the keystone of an alliance which transcended class and would be in fact…what? Make the revolution.

I now think I was mistaken in my criticism that the union leaders were too pressed or too indifferent to develop the alliance when matters became tense (as they did), that I was led by my own susceptibility to rhetoric into ignoring the fact that the student uprising was tame and ephemeral, that it produced no lasting organization with which the leaders on the union side could come to terms. The hard fact is that a year later the union still exists, following its own path toward incremental gains for the workers, and that the students, as students, are hardly in sight.

Much the same point could be made about another tender spot for radicals, the union’s difficulties with the Young Lords. It is true that the union resists, persecutes, and tries to destroy the power of its members who are Lords in a relentless, narrow-minded, and overreactive way. While I was there, for instance, the union refused to support a group of Lords and others from the Gouverneur Health Clinic of Beth Israel Hospital, who, organized as the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement (H-RUM), had staged a demonstration inside the hospital and been fired. 1199 was refusing to petition for their reinstatement. H-RUM members found a little noticed clause in the 1199 constitution which entitled them to present their case against the Executive Council’s decision to an appeals board made up of union members. The result was an arduous and prolonged semi-trial worthy of the elders of Salem.

I think I felt most bitter when a union vice-president, who denounced the illegality of the H-RUM demonstration, arguing that “you can’t do that” in the hospitals, later came up to me glowing with some remembered spirit of his own radical days. He pointed to a member of the appeals board (who has since joined the staff) and said, with amazing unself-consciousness, “See that guy? We used to break windows together on the picket lines in the Thirties.”

Nevertheless, whatever the hypocrisy of the union’s language, its disagreeable tactics, and its unconscionable zealotry, its incompatibility with the Lords makes sense. There is no way, given the structure of the union’s relations with the hospitals, the omnipresence of the contract which trades off discipline for money to pay a carefully defined number of workers doing specific jobs, that the union could share the Lords’ vision of a revolution based in the community. That is simply not a way in which this union, or any other union, can contribute to change in America.

What this suggests is that, in a peculiar way, Samuel Gompers was right. Unions are not political organizations, cannot be, and were in fact shaped by developing corporate America precisely not to be. This is why there has continued to be such a gap between the “left” in general and the “labor left”: why Walter Reuther, for all his efforts, was never instrumental in the larger left political movement. Because of their many other functions, because of the limitations of their independence, because of their need for stability (which implies a relation to electoral politics), labor unions can have only a marginal effect on conventionally defined left political issues.

Where they could have an effect, it seems to me, is on the fundamental texture of the industrial system itself. There will probably always be work, and for the foreseeable future at least there are bound to be workers. The job of a radical union should be to reduce the gulf between labor and the managers, between the owning class and the workers. It should not substitute another more genial or benign layer of management between the workers and the power that controls them.

To do this the hospital workers’ union would first have to discover (indeed, admit: the cat is already out of the bag) the truth about the organization of medicine in America, the economics of hospitals, the workings of medical administration. Second, it would require a fundamental look at the whole notion of skills and training in this society, since in the hospitals it is the rigid classification of skills and jobs which plays a key role in keeping the workers down. If skills could be demystified and training programs initiated which were realistic (instead of, as at present, immensely costly because they help to reinforce the divisions in the system they are trying to reform), then, finally, there would be a realistic basis on which to begin talking about sharing power, about giving the workers the right, the technical as well as moral capacity, to control their lives and futures. If this were possible collective bargaining, as it functioned in this case, for example, would be a dead process.

The question of what workers would do with their power is the question that links the possibility of larger political change with the importance of industry-based action. But radicalism must begin at home, and the great failure of the 1199 leadership is that it has not told the truth to the workers about the oppression in their working lives or about the union itself. This failure makes the union finally a supporter and not an antagonist of the status quo.

A friend of mine who is close to the union once commented, “There is criticism in the name of an abstraction and criticism which tries to make things better.” I kept hearing her words as I thought about this article: about not writing it, and, having written it, about not publishing it. It seems unrealistic to criticize an institution that works when the options are unclear or difficult. In any event it is nearly impossible to have an effect. To criticize from the inside is structurally impossible; to criticize from the outside is to be regarded as a fink. In either case, why cause trouble for decent people with decent goals? I was free to leave the union after a short time and move to the country. I was free to stop trying to effect an institution which couldn’t be changed, to stop working on behalf of goals I couldn’t persuade myself were good enough and in an atmosphere of intimidation I disliked in practice and opposed on principle.

I exercised the privilege of my class. But the members of 1199 can’t move to Vermont. I feel glad my friends are there on 43rd Street, making things a little better every day, trying to figure out ways to beat the bosses next time round. I think that most people who work at 1199 would agree that much that I’ve written is true though they will be angry at me for having said it in public. The optimists think that what is wrong with 1199 is accidental, a side effect of sudden expansion which consumes energy. I think that the problems are structural and inexorable, that they result not from human failings but from the inevitable way a trade union must function in capitalist America.

If a dropout can ask anything of the people who are continuing to dedicate their lives to that institution, it is that they stop trying to persuade themselves and others that what they are doing is good enough, and that they think with more complexity about what changes would make life livable instead of barely worth the struggle, and begin to put them into practice. If I knew whether that were asking too much, I would know the answer to the riddle of 1199. But the fact is, I am still not sure.

(This is the second of two articles on Local 1199.)

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