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Inside the Hospital Workers’ Union

There was an agonizing moment, for instance, during the spring, when the union called a rally to protest the Cambodian invasion, and no one came. The staff sat around with Davis in the empty auditorium, trying to figure out what was wrong: how could such a gulf develop between what the leadership thought was important and what the members would respond to? Davis felt strongly that the members’ failure to turn out in citizenly fashion to oppose a political and moral atrocity was a dangerous omen. He feared that the union was slipping into bread-and-butterism and that was not what he meant his union—or his life—to be about. But in that moment of real doubt there was no one present who had the critical independence to analyze that inexorable slide in a direction that no one fully wants to take.

Various suggestions were made to improve communication between the leaders and the members, but the idea that took root was that there was a crisis of leadership which could be solved if Davis spent more time out of the office at chapter meetings. It was rather like concluding that, well, if it doesn’t work to have an ordinary king, let’s try an emperor; why not two tsars instead of one?

On another occasion Davis sought reassurance from the staff that he had acted correctly during a critical pre-negotiation meeting in permitting dissidents to speak. The fact of the matter (as will be discussed in a later article) is that he had barely allowed them to speak at all, and then only after he had created so much hostility to the dissenters on the part of the members that the members themselves were shouting the speakers down. Nonetheless, he asked for opinions and was told by one of the organizers that the opposition was too dangerous to be permitted to speak at all. It was also agreed that in future situations of that sort the staff would support the leadership’s position by speaking from the microphones on the floor. No one questioned either the actual threat posed by the opposition or the legitimacy of the new vehicle of manipulation. The advice from the staff tends to go in the direction of elaborating and strengthening the very institutions and practices which it is important—for the union’s own sake—to have called into question.

The problem of sycophantism is exaggerated by the role and personality of Davis. Davis was the union’s first full-time organizer in the 1930s. He is small, wiry, goateed: still Russian, in a way, but the kind of Russian you can imagine in the street crowds storming the Winter Palace. He controls the union, supervising everything from the broadest policy making to the narrowest details. When the union was moving to its new offices last summer, it was Davis who decided which desks should be thrown out and which retained, how many tables and file cabinets should be allotted to each department. There are a few semi-autonomous empires commanded by old-time union professionals who over the years have earned Davis’s respect. But he keeps a close watch over the affairs of the union’s operating divisions. No officer makes a decision that is not subject to his reversal.

The problem of personality is more complex. It is commonplace among the staff to profess an attitude of sympathy toward Davis. It is said that he feels awkward or shy, uncertain about how to behave; that he finds personal relationships difficult. It is said that he is not acting for personal gain or out of egotism. All of that is probably true. It is also said that “Davis is usually right,” which is certainly true, since he has defined what “right” is. Nevertheless, Davis has a streak of despotism which frequently gets out of hand. He struts around the office like a rooster on dexedrine, impartially insulting the high and the lowly alike. He deals with people chiefly by means of contempt. A black man who left the union before I came left behind an open letter explaining his resignation. He said, in part:

The first shocking experience I had was at the staff meeting when Leon Davis literally yelled and screamed at Brother X. X’s action could have been entirely wrong (which I doubt anyway) but as far as I was concerned to witness any white man screaming down on a Black brother recalled to my mind all the past with a terrible vividness, that is the atmosphere of the plantation. It was then that I knew that I was working for my master and that in order for me to maintain my dignity I must eventually make my escape, since that attitude would no doubt reach me, too.

There are those officers, some unfortunately Black, who would argue the point that “Leon doesn’t mean any harm. That’s just his way.” My response to that rationale is that to yell and treat anyone in this manner which I consider so undignified, especially Black people who have been yelled at and dehumanized for over 300 years, is characteristic of the plantation bossman, and unfortunately many of you have become immune to it. You have received so much abuse, till you’ve become punch-drunk.

…I discussed the Tag Day card with the printing department manager and we came up with some ideas. But when I called the Department of Social Services I was advised to wait until we received the license. Later in the afternoon Leon came screaming at me about getting the cards printed without giving me the courtesy to explain anything. It was then that I became aware that I had not understood what he had in mind. And, as he walked away, he shot out at me—“You’re going to have another flop.” That was the moment I realized that nothing I did here would be fruitful. A man cannot think creatively or have the full freedom to function under the circumstances I have attempted to describe.

The rhythm of the Tag Day scenario, with its humiliating crescendo, is familiar to everyone on the staff. Once during the summer Davis came storming out of his office to attack me for something I had written which he thought was unclear. It probably was unclear: after all, Davis is always right. But as he walked away he shouted: “The only person who could have done it worse was Y.” Y is a man who has worked for the union for some time. He works hard and does his job well. Much of what he has been unable to do is attributable to lack of resources and lack of authority. He’s no William Faulkner, but on the other hand, Davis isn’t Genghis Khan.

It is possible, if one wants to be theoretical, to argue that 1199 has a good, old-fashioned, rough-and-ready pre-manipulative organizational structure. You will find no Musak in its offices; no management consultants plot out ways to keep the employees under control. Davis, whatever his faults, is no bureaucrat. He is always frank. He says exactly what he means. But this argument would be more credible if power were equally shared. The ugliness of tyranny over subordinates cannot be theorized away. Fighting back, as people occasionally do, can be personally satisfying, but it is functionally useless: it changes nothing. Davis’s personality and the centralized structure of the union have created a situation in which people are in fact incapable of much originality or initiative. Then they must suffer Davis’s additional contempt for filling the very roles he has created for them to play.

The narrowness of vision that comes from this combination of structural centralization and personal autocracy creates several problems. One is the problem of leadership in the next generation. From one perspective, there is a kind of political poetry to the process. The Old Left, Jewish leaders of 1199 have acquitted themselves better than many of their Depression comrades in transmitting to a new generation of blacks and Puerto Ricans skills and resources—an organization—which they can now shape to whatever ends they choose.

But there is more to running the union than skills and resources. The former hospital workers who will take over the union have been trained for obedience, not independence. Even if one agrees that the union’s basic goals and tactics should remain unaltered, this is still a dangerous situation. The older generation has political experience, sophistication, agility. It knows how to deal with the union’s enemies.

The new people do not have that background. They could learn it, as expertly as they have learned organization and administration, but no one is teaching them. Where there should be openness, frankness, debate, education, and experimentation, there is dogmatism and rigidity. The obedience that guarantees success in the present presages difficulties in the future.

Furthermore, there is a political concealment that is also dangerous. In a certain sense the leaders of 1199 have lied: not about practical affairs (at least not to the staff) but about their unstated, but crucial, intuitions of what history and the future are all about. Many members of the staff would be amazed to learn that their leaders once were Communists, that they once had substantially different convictions about the means and ends of workers’ liberation in America.

The workers who will run 1199 need to know that Leon Davis and Martin Luther King are not the only social prophets worth listening to. They ought to be taught—in classes, readings, discussions, and their own deductions from the evidence of their own eyes and experiences—that freedom and security for black and Puerto Rican workers in America will not come wrapped in the corny packages of the union’s propaganda, but will be a long haul over a route that nobody knows for sure. What has kept the union “left” till now are the political fires that still burn in the hearts of the old leaders. It will become a structural and principled commitment only if the staff and the members are encouraged to overcome self-congratulation and can center themselves on what is real in America.

The new people in the union are almost wholly involved with its successes with bread-and-butter issues. Everyone there is now an ideological trade unionist by conviction, but there is a big difference between being a trade unionist having once been a revolutionary and being a trade unionist having once been a hospital worker. If the union does not become more candid about politics, if the members are not asked to examine their experience more deeply, the fires will flicker and almost certainly die.

A related problem is the manipulation of the truth. People do not think; the union “thinks.” Conventional explanations are reached for time and again. At one point in the summer, for example, a black member of the union who works in a New Jersey nursing home came to see me. We had mutual friends who had worked in a Newark SDS project, and when they learned she was troubled about the union, they suggested she come in. The woman, whom I shall call Martha Smith, said that things were in bad shape in the nursing home where she worked. Back pay of $1.90 an hour had been promised and was not being given; the home was firing black workers, especially those with Afros; when the members tried to cash their paychecks, they sometimes bounced. She said that she had tried to get help from the union’s New Jersey staff and had been ignored. She believed that the staff was in league with the boss of the home.

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