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Inside the Hospital Workers’ Union

I had no information about the case, and no business meddling. I knew that the New Jersey staff was not in the pay of the boss, and I knew that the union was generally vigilant enough to prevent situations of the kind Mrs. Smith described from developing. On the other hand, I knew that the staff was sometimes too busy to look into everything, and that most nursing home operations are marginal affairs from which the owners try to extract as much as possible. I also knew that Mrs. Smith was not crazy. She simply had more political experience than many members, and more guts.

But when I took it up with the appropriate officer (who was angry at my interference) her automatic reaction was to defend the system. Mrs. Smith, I was told, was “a kook,” “neurotic.” The logic is that a person must be a kook to question the correct practices of 1199. The evidence for kookery was that Mrs. Smith had once had a lawyer telephone the office when she had failed to receive a copy of some contract or memorandum. The officer believed that Mrs. Smith had hired a lawyer, which is unheard of in the relation between the union and its members. I was certain that she had known a lawyer during her Newark experiences, and had gotten him to make the call as a favor. She said that Mrs. Smith was not the official delegate, which was true but seemed to me irrelevant if the real delegate had been fired (as she claimed) and if she were, in fact, representing the workers’ interests.

The officer said that the story about firing black workers had to be fabricated. The New Jersey staff is black. Wouldn’t they be certain to take action? And she believed that Mrs. Smith simply did not understand the question of money. The workers were not being screwed; it simply took some time for payroll changes to be implemented correctly. She did not budge from the union line in any particular: it was impossible for things to have gotten as botched up as Mrs. Smith claimed they were.

The officer could have been right or wrong; I don’t know. The point is that the responses were automatic. There is a union answer for every situation that might arise; there is never a fresh look at the particulars. Right and wrong are always defined from the union perspective. If someone’s experience has taught him to look at things from a different angle, to raise questions or objections, he is classified as crazy or traitorous (or both) even if, as in the case of Mrs. Smith, he is an ordinary member, innocent of any grandstand designs or threatening intentions toward the leadership.

Another situation arose while I was there, a virtual war between 1199 and another union for control of a Long Island nursing home. From what I could see it was a rather sordid situation of the kind in which 1199 is only rarely involved: 1199 had come in under some kind of sweetheart contract with the boss, but the members had actually voted for the other union. There were some points at which it nearly became bloody. There was much talk of goons and thugs. One night the entire young staff of 1199 lined up in cars outside a house where officers were meeting with workers, anticipating an old-style union war.

I could not imagine how we were going to explain this situation in the magazine, and so I asked. The answer turned out to be: “A phony union tried to mislead the workers.” The truth is manipulated like that all the time. If the union loses an election it reports that the workers who failed to vote for it were “duped.” If it calls a work stoppage which the leaders are reluctant to publicize, it is said: “There was no work stoppage; the workers were in a meeting.”

This loss of reality is a borderline affair between an accidental side effect of self-indoctrination and deliberate policy. People make a case for the lies and believe that they are necessary. As a general rule it is better for hospital and nursing home workers to be in 1199 than to be in some other union, or no union, simply because 1199 is more powerful. In that sense, workers are “duped” if they fail to support 1199. Officers can—and do—argue, with reason, that news of work stoppages should not be bandied about because it would gain the union a reputation for irresponsibility. The question of reality is thus closely tied to the question of propaganda. Whatever simplifications or distortions of reality the leadership chooses to adopt are dutifully and competently transmitted to the members through its well-financed and well-run propaganda agencies, whether the issues are the comparatively minor incidents mentioned here or matters of greater political seriousness such as the rights and wrongs of the union’s ongoing enmity with the Young Lords.

The union’s use of certain black political figures, particularly Coretta King, seems to me to border on racism. When Mrs. King appears for the union in crucial organizing drives or elections she is certainly acting on her own responsibility. Nonetheless the union’s approach to her rests on the calculation that the black workers will respond automatically to Mrs. King as to a savior: that they will do whatever she says will bring them freedom. The last time she appeared it was to read a speech prepared in the office, shake hands with the workers in a pre-election receiving line outside a big hospital, and promise autographs to people who mailed in a pledge to vote for the union. (The union lost.)

The union relies on vibrations and images for its communication. Its manufacture and merchandising of symbols are worthy of Young & Rubicam. The best, though most painful, example is the case of Doris Turner, the executive vice-president of the Hospital Division, the only black and the only woman in the top leadership. She is an extremely competent person: straightforward, original, and strong. But the union uses her as an advertisement. She is not a person, but a symbol: a Black Woman Worker. She is always introduced with a string of Homeric tags indicating that she has risen-from-the-ranks. “You can see yourselves in her,” the workers are repeatedly told.

The difficulty with the symbol of Doris Turner (though not with the person) is that it is a lie, the oldest lie in the American book: the Horatio Alger lie transformed by color and sex. Should we have to repeat in America in 1971 that for every one who has made it, thousands fell by the way? The perversions and simplifications of reality which flavor 1199 are harmful. They are harmful first to the people who manufacture and transmit them because they have been doing it for so long—and do it so reflexively—that they no longer have a solid grasp on what is true or false. And they are very much a disservice to the members who would be more generously helped toward true independence if they were given honest information.


To the extent that this discussion has separated the structure and spirit of the union from its function, it is both harsh and unrealistic. None of the practices described so far is an end in itself. All are means to a larger end: success at the bargaining table. In addition, there are other qualifications. Much that is true about 1199 is true of most other large organizations. 1199 differs from Madison Avenue chiefly in its crudity; it differs from the military chiefly in the humanity of its goals. Its object is fairer distribution of wealth and not increased consumption. But in the way it functions as an organization, it is more like other American institutions than unlike them.

Again, 1199 did not invent the cult of leadership. In War and Peace, when Nicholas Rostov sees Tsar Alexander passing among the troops before Austerlitz he thinks to himself: “I will die for that man.” One could argue that Rostov’s feeling was irrational, that he learned it in the schools and churches and around the palace, and from other Russian institutions that had to perpetuate themselves, that it really was not in the interests of the fullest expression of his own nature. But the way he felt about the Tsar and the way members feel about Leon Davis is the way men have felt about their princes, warriors, presidents, and chiefs since long before propaganda became a liberal art. (How the women felt is one of the buried facts of our still unwritten history.)

Furthermore, the propaganda machinery the union employs is a staple of the survival kits of our age. It is the means at hand to accomplish the ends desired, and for any agency that has to function in this society to renounce them would be practical disaster. It is almost meaningless to criticize any other American institution for using these tools well.

Contemporary radicals who criticize the union—or any union—rarely administer anything more permanent than a mass demonstration. Institutions are built and slip away according to the needs of the moment, and everyone agrees that these transitions and evolutions are desirable and necessary. It is possible (barely) to put out the Rat or the Mole, to run a law commune or a crafts cooperative in a collective and egalitarian fashion; in the present order of things it is not possible to handle the grievances and administer the benefits of 45,000 people in that fashion, particularly when the institutions to which they must relate are themselves unreformed. It is a complex question.

If the “cultural revolution” continues, it seems possible that large numbers at least of young radicals will never run large organizations: SDS was known privately among its earliest adherents as Students for a Small Society. But for an organization with the roots, commitments, and responsibilities of 1199, political alternatives should be considered—in time demanded—that are not yet even dreams. The union is mired in its basic acceptance of, and contentment with, the managerial elite which runs the hospitals as it runs other American enterprises, an elite which does not oppress the workers any less because it is a servant of capitalism rather than its master.

In the last analysis, it seems that if the no longer so “new” political generation has made any contribution to political morality, surely that is its conviction that the way things are accomplished matters nearly as much as what is done, that progress is illusory if it rests on manipulation, intimidation, and obedience, that power must be a devastating force if it is not widely shared. It is difficult to connect these perceptions with the real, down-to-earth gains the union has won for its members. That is why criticism of the union is always perceived (and dismissed) as abstract. But it is not wrong to insist that the good the union is accomplishing is too bruised by its methods to deserve to be called freedom.

(This is the first of two articles on Local 1199. In the second Miss Langer will discuss the union’s recent contract negotiations.)

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