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Inside the Hospital Workers’ Union

I

In a mid-Manhattan neighborhood filled with drunks and prostitutes, with pool halls and cheap pubs where the steam tables serve up oxtail stew at nine in the morning and men off the night shift stop for an early morning beer before bed, the part of town where every bookshop is pornographic and every movie obscene—there, surrounded by the victims of ecological, political, and economic nightmare, stands a new fourteen-story building, emblazoned with a work-glorifying mosaic and capped by the words of Frederick Douglass: If There Is no Struggle There Can be No Progress. The building is the new home of Local 1199 Drug and Hospital Union, an organization widely known (not least through its own efforts) as a sort of phoenix of the American labor movement, a miraculous organism in the graveyard of organized labor: a live trade union.

In the terms in which America measures power, Local 1199 is not a mighty thing. Its members cannot cripple the economy or affect international trade. When its leaders visit Washington it is not for private conferences with the President but to wander among the crowds of protesting youth. The union represents about 45,000 hospital workers in the New York area, mainly blacks and Puerto Ricans, and it is reaching out to other Eastern cities, which makes it, along with the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, one of the most important groupings of working poor in the country. But it is possible in America to be “the most significant grouping” of X, Y, or Z, and still not be very significant at all.

Why, then, has there been so much publicity about this union? Why is Abe Raskin, in The New York Times, so enthusiastic; Gloria Steinem, in New York, ecstatic; the Wall Street Journal deferential; TransAction alert? Why does CBS film it, Coretta King march for it, Ralph Abernathy to jail for it? Why does Ossie Davis stump for it, and Harry Belafonte and Bayard Rustin sign tributes to its various good works?

Raskin, a Times editorialist, offers the best explanation. He wrote:

The experience of Local 1199 affords encouraging evidence that a racially integrated approach within existing institutions can redistribute power and thus begin to satisfy the yearnings of those in the cellar of opportunity for self-direction towards a place in the sun.

He concluded:

It is a fight that may never be wholly won, but it is a fight America cannot afford to lose.

That is the heart of the matter. The history of Local 1199 raises a question which liberals believe is crucial and which radicals believe contains a self-evident, negative answer: What are the limits of reform in the American system? Raskin knows this well, and for “Raskin” read any more or less liberal, articulate man of political affairs, desiring the poor to be liberated from destitution, opposed to revolution not because he fears a redistribution of wealth and power but because he is convinced (from “broad experience” and “sober thought”) that it can’t happen here—“not with the repressive powers of the state”—and even if it could, perhaps, just perhaps, it would be too bloody and brutal to justify the gains.

And so Miss Steinem, Mrs. King, and Reverend Abernathy, and the union itself—the leaders and, through the leaders, the members—must believe that the union affords “encouraging evidence” of the possibilities of reform. Their articles and speeches are filled with the union’s success stories—stories of money gains, of workers rising through the ranks to positions of leadership, of white leadership being replaced by black, of incorruptibility, Spartan salaries, hard work. These stories (and not by accident) coincide with 1199’s version of itself.

It is not so simple as the union’s friends would like it to be. What is at stake in the question of Local 1199 is not a matter of a “correct” political line, liberal or radical, but rather, whether their claims for the union are true, whether the gains they describe are real or illusory, whether there is reason to support the union’s strategy. In the case of 1199 the liberals are not obviously wrong. They are not fabricating evidence. There is reason to find the situation “encouraging.” Local 1199 raises the question of the possibility of radical change through orthodox means at a time when the poverty programs and other paraphernalia of the Sixties seem clearly to have failed. 1199 has raised its members’ economic status from total poverty to something approaching self-sufficiency and given them a collective power which, without the union organization, they could not have begun to acquire.

It is an authentic working class organization. It has poor blacks, Puerto Ricans, and whites working comfortably together in a functional, if not declared, interracial movement of the poor. It has mechanisms of member participation which, compared to those of other trade unions, are democratic and full of life. It takes radical positions on most controversial political questions, breaking with both the national and the local labor establishments—opposition to the war, support for the Panthers and the Chicago Conspiracy defendants, endorsement of the community in the battle between Ocean Hill-Brownsville and the teachers union—and frequently backs up its support with participation on committees and with funds. It was the moving force behind the strike of hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina, two years ago.

Local 1199 has to be taken seriously because it actually works: it maintains itself, grows, is stable, offers its members a huge array of administratively complex benefits and services which they desperately need. By and large, 1199 keeps its promises, and it is perhaps the only mass organization in the country with a commitment that deserves to be called “left” that is able to do that.

But another problem arises. Even if 1199 is a vehicle of change as that word is usually understood, something is wrong with that conception of change. It is romantic to imagine radical social change as a matter of individual progress. It must involve whole classes, patterns of work, a new set of relations between owners and managers on the one hand and workers on the other. It means, or must mean, a new way of accomplishing social ends.

Another, even more difficult, question is: In what context are individual changes taking place? It is all right to give people a place in the sun—but only if there is a sun. There is reason to believe, as many members do, that the union is a Moses, leading a suppressed people out of bondage. But there is also reason to believe that there is an Egypt in the future nearly as terrible as that in the past: that the union is leading people to look for salvation within a system which cannot possibly provide it and by means which cannot possibly realize it.

I worked for 1199 for six months last winter and spring, on the staff of the union’s magazine, and I’m not certain which view is true. Sometimes I thought that the union was the best institution that exists in overground America. But I am not sure whether that is saying much, or whether it is saying far too little.

This article has been long in the making and difficult to write for a number of reasons. My personal loyalty and respect for the people who run 1199 is immense, though the publication of this article will make me their enemy. Second, the lack of clarity which surrounds political thinking on unions and the working class is historic and boundless. I began work at the union as a rather orthodox New Leftist, which means in practice a keen nose for authoritarianism and manipulation and a basic sense of the need for revolution, but perhaps less sensitivity to many other equally important categories of analysis and possible options. I am more aware in retrospect than I was at the time that the union is composed in large measure of women and is run chiefly by men. I hope that a later observer of unions and of women will be able to analyze, in a way that I have not, the role of sex in the issues described here.

I ended my stay at the union with more questions than when I began, questions which could not be wholly answered by the strategy either of “reform” or “revolution” but which sought to discover what the conditions of real liberation in a modern society would be. The purpose of this article is to share the experience and suggest some of the questions.

II

Local 1199 was founded in 1932 as a union of Depression-ridden professional pharmacists, mostly Jewish and many Communist. It remained a small leftwing union until 1958, when a number of decisions and accidents led it to undertake a major organizing drive in the city’s voluntary hospitals. This meant, in practical terms, that the costly effort to unionize the blacks and Puerto Ricans enslaved in the labyrinthine laundries, kitchens, and sub-basements of New York’s “prestige” medical institutions was underwritten in large part by the same middle-class Jews who now fret over the leadership’s support for the “anti-Semitic” Panthers and grow apoplectic over the refusal of the president, Leon Davis, to be an apologist for Israel.

The coexistence of these political eras and ethnic groupings within the union has a real impact, in spite of the fact that the pharmacists and other drugstore employees are compartmentalized into a separate Drug Division. The heroic age of drugstore organizing fathered a large percentage of the union’s present white leadership. The 6,000 members of the union who work in the retail drug industry—older people, Jews, largely suburban—are not overlooked when policy is being made: they have a conservative impact on the way political positions are formulated.

Thus when the union supports the Panthers, it carefully supports their constitutional right to exist, a First Amendment issue, and not their program; in discussing Vietnam, the union is careful to point out that high interest rates resulting from inflation affect the suburban homeowner as much as the shortage of housing affects the slum dweller. The white members of 1199 have been swamped—but they are still there, they have an honorable history, and, in ways that are hard to isolate because they are inseparable from the organization itself, they have an effect.

The communist experience, which touched the lives of many members of the staff, has left its mark as well. There is an uncritical acceptance of democratic centralism as democratic; a glorification of the union leadership; a sacrifice of personal principles to organizational demands; a sectarian overreaction to opposition. These tendencies, of course, have other causes than their roots in the Communist Party. They are partly inherent in the nature and function of American trade unions and in the nature and function of large organizations generally. The point is that the communist heritage of 1199 has been consistent with the other factors that have shaped the union; it certainly has posed no obstacle to them.

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