Inside the Hospital Workers’ Union

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 …

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