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Inside the Hospital Workers’ Union

Apart from the loyalists, the union does not touch the rest of its members very deeply. About 30,000 of them are in the Hospital Division: about 80 percent black and Puerto Rican, about 60 percent women. They have the jobs society classes as unskilled: they are maids, porters, kitchen aides, laundry workers, nurse’s aides, janitors. They worked for years at $28 and $30 a week. In 1968 a threatened strike won a $100 minimum for the lowest paid job; the most recent contract promises wages of at least $130 by July 1, 1971.

A second, smaller division known as the Guild also exists in the union. It consists of more highly skilled technicians, clerical workers, Licensed Practical Nurses, and some hospital-based professionals such as psychologists and social workers. About half these members are black, although their level of education, and their wages, are considerably higher. But the Hospital Division is the more characteristic part of the union, and closer to the hearts of the union’s leaders. The unskilled were the first to be organized; their resolve and bravery built 1199. The Guild emerged after the strikes were over and recognition was won. In addition, being better educated, Guild members are apt to be more critical and less grateful, more apt to obstruct the smooth flow of the leadership’s designs.

The relationship of most members to the union is largely functional. It is the instrument through which raises come, grievances are handled, insurance claims paid. The union’s reputation among these members seems to be generally good, and it is supported wholeheartedly during contract negotiation time. Nonetheless, for the majority of the members, the union is simply a fact of life on the job and little else.

The leadership of 1199 believes that it knows “what these people want.” Money gains, job security, paid vacations. Davis will spell it out: “Our members don’t want violence, confrontations.” He will repeat, at the drop of a hat, “We love our work.” There is a tendency around the union to believe that most of the members are good citizens after the middle-class image, that they participated in the riots in Newark and New York, for example, only as victims. These ideas seem to me self-deceiving. They grow out of the leaders’ contacts with the older loyalists. It is probably true of the members in their forties, fifties, and sixties: they have fought their battles and they want, and deserve, some peace.

But for the rest of the members the question is more open. When the union tells them to vote and for whom to vote, when to march and for what to march, when the union tells them to be good citizens in conventional ways and that the system will reward them, it is only one of many voices trying to tell them what is going on. They know about the Urban League and the churches, but they also know about the Panthers and the Lords.

The union made a documentary film about the hospital strike in Charleston featuring one of the women who went on strike. One scene showed Mrs. Brown’s husband sitting on a chair scratching his head and looking embarrassed; the camera focused on him for a while, while Mrs. Brown was speaking, out of its range. The young men I talked to in the union, a new breed of potentially radical blacks with Afros and wide-lensed glasses, did not like Mr. Brown at all. For them, the image of that black man smiling foolishly and scratching his head was the image they had to disprove.

When the strike was being contemplated in New York in 1970, more members than perhaps the leadership appreciates were creating elaborate plans to close down their hospitals, not so much because of their determination to win the particular demands but in a mood of relish of the potential power in their hands. The men and women of 1199 are the men and women of America’s ghettos. What they want now, and how far and fast they will move to get it, no one can say with certainty.


Much that is true of the union’s active members is also true of the staff. The majority of them are former hospital workers who were brought into the organization after displaying leadership in strikes or other situations in which they participated as members. There are relatively few people with professional training or political experience outside trade unions. The white college graduates on the staff are either former white-collar hospital employees such as technicians, or people with a political commitment to trade unionism.

The closeness of the staff to the workers creates a democracy of spirit that all the good intentions of middle-class radicals could not possibly reproduce. The relationship between a good organizer and the members is in fact so natural it is almost impossible to describe. I spent a day with a veteran black organizer, a sixty-five-year-old man who had laid railroad tracks, been a welder, and worked in the hospitals before joining the staff. His attitude toward the workers was respectful and friendly in a manner untouched by sentimentality or doctrine. If the workers hadn’t done what they were supposed to do—come to a meeting or keep proper track of tickets to a union function—he didn’t patronize them, he let them have it. He was neither master nor servant: not acting out of egotism and not acting out of guilt. He was somehow straight. People would get their rights, as far as he was concerned, but they would have to fulfill their responsibilities.

At the same time, he could act strongly on behalf of workers who were not in a position to look out for themselves. He had a meeting with a personnel director who was stalling on a demand to upgrade some Navytrained firemen who were being underpaid. The personnel man was explaining all the bureaucratic reasons for the delay. The organizer’s reaction was simple: it made him angry when management tried to keep money out of the workers’ pockets. His arguments—original, skillful, and honestly felt—were more than a match for the personnel man’s smooth evasions.

Most of the daily work of the organizers is of this kind. They make sure that a woman’s job will be open when she returns from maternity leave; persuade the hospital to provide insulated jackets for workers who must walk between an icy freezer and a hot kitchen; obstruct the firing of a worker who is frequently late for reasons he can’t quite explain. The quantity of this work is enormous. Organizers at large hospitals may be responsible for more than a thousand workers. The delegates are supposed to handle as many grievances as possible, and many of them do a good deal, but the burden of grievances and other matters tends to fall on the staff members. It is also exhausting. At stake in grievances are matters that mean a great deal to the human beings involved, that make the difference between whether jobs are tolerable or drive them crazy, whether their families eat meat or potatoes, whether they are employed or jobless.

It is also true that grievances have a repressive function. The organizer may bargain down a man’s suspension for lateness from five days to three: all parties are still conceding the right of management to control and punish the worker. A clear example of the dual nature of grievances was an incident in a Westchester nursing home last summer. The union delegate, a cook, took up a grievance on behalf of a nurse’s aide. The owner of the home declared that the delegate had no right to do it and fired him. Hearing the news, the workers in the kitchen walked out. The role of the organizer, called in by the management, was to persuade the members to go back to work while the case was taken to arbitration: in other words to shunt the workers’ spontaneous resistance to arbitrary authority into a managerial channel over which they had no personal control.

But the repressive, bureaucratic side of grievance processing is not the side the organizer—or the members—see. They see that Mr. Hawthorne lost three days’ pay instead of five, that Mr. Crozier kept his job, that matters that are deeply serious for the members and their families are frequently resolved in favor of the workers. They see that if the union did not exist the worker would have no insulation at all and that with the union he has some. Dealing with these matters drains emotional as well as physical energy. In addition, the organizers must serve as transmission belts for union policy. They collect funds, sell tickets, rally support behind the leadership on various internal issues. The organizers are the people who make the union real, who take it out of the office and into the hospitals, who link the working members with the bureaucracy of arbitration, benefit plans, scholarship programs, and the other services the union has spawned.

It is the fashion among the officers to criticize the organizers. They are said to be lazy and stupid and accused of not doing their jobs. My impression was the opposite. They work hard, sometimes rising at 5 or 6 AM to meet with members on the early shifts. Evening meetings are the rule and weekend work is frequent. Many organizers give out their home telephone numbers to make themselves available throughout the night. The work they do could never redress the power balance between workers and management, and is not meant to, however much rhetoric the union tries to place in the more political category of workers’ rights, workers’ power, or liberation. But it helps the members in difficult times with their real problems. It seemed to me that the organizing staff took these responsibilities seriously and handled them well.

But, again, there is a problem. Most of the staff, including the second-level leaders who will eventually take over, have little political experience outside the union. What they have learned about the world they have learned at the knee of Leon Davis. The difficulty with this is not that they fail to challenge the union’s reformism with another political strategy. It is that within the union they are unable to be critical or think things through in a fresh way. The union is their political universe, protecting it their mission. They see, correctly, much that is good about the union and so they are loyal, but loyalty has come to mean obedience. It is permissible on occasion to suggest a new way to obtain the result the leadership wants; it is not permissible to argue against those goals. This means that in situations where new ideas would be useful, they are not produced. On the occasions when Davis solicits advice, the opinions he gets come out in the mold he has already shaped.

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