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Inside the Hospital Workers’ Union

The positive side of the communist legacy is the memory of revolutionary aspirations (though these are no longer in the forefront) and a respect for working people which is far more natural, and goes more deeply, than anything that middle-class radicals have been able to cultivate—because it is based on identification. Old Leftists have what seems to be a genuinely democratic attitude toward workers. They believe with Martin Luther King that “there are no menial jobs, only menial wages.” That conviction, and the fact that they are frequently former workers themselves, create a spontaneous fellowship.

Young leftists believe, in a post-industrial way, that most jobs are outrageous affronts to freedom which society should find some other way to perform. To Old Leftists work, and therefore workers, have dignity. That sense of identification, too, is inextricable from the other factors that make the union what it is. What is “communist” about the union and what is not merge together in shadowy ways that can easily be exaggerated. But there are habits and practices which are usually ascribed to other causes in which the communist particles shine through.

The men and women to whom these Old Left, Jewish radicals have opened their union are men and women of a very different sort. Last summer I had long interviews with about a dozen older members of the union, people retiring or about to retire: because of the union, hospital workers can retire for the first time with a decent pension. The following story is typical.

I started to work in the laundry in 1942 when I was twenty-nine. I had three children and was separated from my husband. He didn’t give me any money. I was paid $27 a week and worked six days. A good boss let me use the machines there to wash and press nurses’ uniforms on a private basis. I charged the nurses 50 cents each and made more money doing that than I got paid. But a new boss came in who made me stop. I went to the hospital director and he gave me a little raise, but it wasn’t enough. I went to work cleaning house for some people when I wasn’t working at the hospital. When the union came around I was suspicious at first, but later I could see that we needed it. I went out on strike and stayed out. Things have been very different since the union came. It’s been very good to us. I’d stand by it in anything.

That’s a real story: a Puerto Rican laundress now in her late fifties who daily and dependably does her work in the steamy fetid air of the Mount Sinai laundry, surrounded by other aging workers (few of whom speak English), many, like her, heroes and heroines of the 1959 strike.

She is the “typical” 1199-er: the one around whom myths are created and statues built, the one whose image the leadership propagates in publication and film, the one trotted out for visiting Raskins. The happy, healthy, cheerful, friendly, smiling “worker,” socialist realism in the flesh, who does her work without complaint and actively supports the union, representing other workers, serving on committees, making sure the vote is gotten out, the boat ride tickets sold, the demonstration orderly; uncynical about her own experience, the union, the world; loyal and dependable; full of energy and full of love.

She knows and can explain how it was that she was making $27 a week then and will make $130 soon. She knows what the union has done for her. She can pay doctors, get eye-glasses, borrow money, retire on a pension. She is no longer dependent on the personality of the boss. When she challenges the hospital, she knows she’s no longer alone. She is a real woman, and furthermore a wise one. The conclusions she has drawn meet the facts of her experience. In 1199, there are thousands like her.

The character of this body of union loyalists has to be understood because it is what supports the whole structure of democracy and participation, supports the leadership against the opposition, makes the leaders believe that they and the members are in genuine contact. The union has representative bodies of workers called Delegate Assemblies which meet regularly and have theoretical decision-making powers. It also has a number of specialized committees and boards which the members are supposed to control. Members of 1199 are around more, have a better idea of what is going on, and generally participate more actively in union affairs than do the members of most other unions. All the officers and some of the organizing staff are elected. But just as the union-backed candidates never fail to get elected, the Delegate Assemblies never fail to carry out the leadership’s policies.

There are younger workers among the delegates who are somewhat restive over this state of affairs. They are better educated, more militant, more influenced by the Panthers and the Young Lords, more skeptical of the white leadership. What role these people will play in the union as months and years go by is unclear. But now, the majority of the workers who participate in 1199’s parliamentary affairs are the older members: fierce, older women with skirts halfway down their knees, the resilient and respectable heroines of the strikes, the toughminded black matriarchs who seemed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan to be so much in the way. They are passionately loyal, and they always agree.

President Davis understands the nature of 1199’s democracy very well. On one occasion when some staff members were troubled over an anomaly that had arisen in some election procedures, Davis burst out: “The word democracy has run away from us. We wouldn’t recognize it if we saw it in the street. You’d have to dynamite this leadership to get it out.” But he also believes, as he said of the committee that accompanied him throughout last year’s contract negotiations: “Our hearts beat together,”

The fact that Davis is right in both statements illuminates the split at the core of 1199. On the one hand, the loyal members have been absolutely shaped by the union. The leadership has used every means at its disposal (oratory, films, the magazine, staff contact) to guide the members’ political experience. It has told the members who they are, where they came from, what they need, and where they are going. It has defined for them the very meaning of their lives. Talking with the members sometimes was like looking in the mirror of their own propaganda. They are told they are X; then, when we talk to them, they tell it back to us.

Once while I was working on the magazine staff, I needed an opinion from a delegate who had helped the union out in a difficult situation in a Long Island nursing home. I couldn’t reach her for several days and the deadline was near. One of my colleagues said: “Oh, you know what she’ll say; just make it up.” I wouldn’t do it: my leftover journalistic professionalism got in the way. But the fact is he was right. When I finally reached her she said precisely what her long experience with the union had taught her to say. I might as well have made it up.

That happens all the time. The union tells the members, in every way it can, that it has won for them a new dignity and respect. When there is occasion to turn around, to try to find out what the members really think and feel, it is impossible to break through the wall. The members will rise, one after the other, and repeat the catchwords: dignity and respect.

But the other part of the split is important. It has to do with the interplay between hypnosis and experience. If the members are programmed, it is not an alien program. At one point during the contract negotiations last summer it was decided that the delegates from each hospital would stage a collective confrontation with the bosses of their institutions to warn them that they had better begin bargaining in earnest. I heard Mary Riley, a black technician at Beth Israel, talk to the assistant director of the hospital. What she said was what the union had told her to say, what had been explained and re-explained as our position. She said: “We love our jobs, we don’t want to hurt the patients, we don’t want to strike, but you’d better give us what we deserve.”

Radicals are too quick to assume that that kind of statement grows out of a “false consciousness” on the part of Mary Riley, that Mary Riley really meant (or should have meant), “I hate my work, don’t care at all about the patients, and want to blow this place off the map.” I’m not sure. It is true that Mary Riley’s standing up to the hospital boss took a lot of courage. It is also true that without the union, without the power it has developed, Mary Riley would not have been in a position to confront the boss at all.

It is equally true, however, that the respect accorded Mary Riley by the administrator was pure sham. He did what he had to do—listen and respond kindly—but it takes more than a militant union to shatter the elitist and patronizing view which nearly any white bureaucrat has of a black worker. Nonetheless, to say that she would have been better off outside the building, throwing rocks into the administrator’s office, is to say nothing at all about Mary Riley. Mary Riley, as Leon Davis would say, knows where it’s at.

So the members have been shaped by the union, but their experience gives them no reason to disbelieve what they have been told. They are not middle-class intellectuals trained to see the thesis and the antithesis at the same time. They follow what’s in their gut, and their gut tells them that the union has never done them a bad turn. Their liberation is real. It is in their pocketbooks, their job security, the benefits mistakenly labeled “fringe,” which are in fact what most people’s lives are made up of (vacations, holidays, sick pay, a way to pay the doctor bills), in their new individual and collective power.

Still, it seemed to me that this liberation took place within a setting that I could not define as free. These people made no choices about how their lives were shaped. They did not choose to be hospital workers, struggling for a decent income: they could fill no other jobs. Within the union, they did not really choose their own goals or decide which methods they would use to obtain them. It was the union’s way out of their troubles, or none. Furthermore, the union does not ever consider or suggest to them that they might gain control of their lives and work in better, firmer ways. To speak of choice and freedom when people have been making $27 a week may seem like a middle-class objection or merely academic. But it is biased as well to pretend with the cheerleaders that $100 a week, an energy consuming job, a regimented work life, a union that rests heavily on indoctrination, and a general powerlessness is liberation enough for “them.”

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