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 happen here—“not with the repressive powers of the state”—and even if it could, perhaps, just perhaps, it would be too bloody and brutal to justify the gains.

And so Miss Steinem, Mrs. King, and Reverend Abernathy, and the union itself—the leaders and, through the leaders, the members—must believe that the union affords “encouraging evidence” of the possibilities of reform. Their articles and speeches are filled with the union’s success stories—stories of money gains, of workers rising through the ranks to positions of leadership, of white leadership being replaced by black, of incorruptibility, Spartan salaries, hard work. These stories (and not by accident) coincide with 1199’s version of itself.

It is not so simple as the union’s friends would like it to be. What is at stake in the question of Local 1199 is not a matter of a “correct” political line, liberal or radical, but rather, whether their claims for the union are true, whether the gains they describe are real or illusory, whether there is reason to support the union’s strategy. In the case of 1199 the liberals are not obviously wrong. They are not fabricating evidence. There is reason to find the situation “encouraging.” Local 1199 raises the question of the possibility of radical change through orthodox means at a time when the poverty programs and other paraphernalia of the Sixties seem clearly to have failed. 1199 has raised its members’ economic status from total poverty to something approaching self-sufficiency and given them a collective power which, without the union organization, they could not have begun to acquire.

It is an authentic working class organization. It has poor blacks, Puerto Ricans, and whites working comfortably together in a functional, if not declared, interracial movement of the poor. It has mechanisms of member participation which, compared to those of other trade unions, are democratic and full of life. It takes radical positions on most controversial political questions, breaking with both the national and the local labor establishments—opposition to the war, support for the Panthers and the Chicago Conspiracy defendants, endorsement of the community in the battle between Ocean Hill-Brownsville and the teachers union—and frequently backs up its support with participation on committees and with funds. It was the moving force behind the strike of hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina, two years ago.


Local 1199 has to be taken seriously because it actually works: it maintains itself, grows, is stable, offers its members a huge array of administratively complex benefits and services which they desperately need. By and large, 1199 keeps its promises, and it is perhaps the only mass organization in the country with a commitment that deserves to be called “left” that is able to do that.

But another problem arises. Even if 1199 is a vehicle of change as that word is usually understood, something is wrong with that conception of change. It is romantic to imagine radical social change as a matter of individual progress. It must involve whole classes, patterns of work, a new set of relations between owners and managers on the one hand and workers on the other. It means, or must mean, a new way of accomplishing social ends.

Another, even more difficult, question is: In what context are individual changes taking place? It is all right to give people a place in the sun—but only if there is a sun. There is reason to believe, as many members do, that the union is a Moses, leading a suppressed people out of bondage. But there is also reason to believe that there is an Egypt in the future nearly as terrible as that in the past: that the union is leading people to look for salvation within a system which cannot possibly provide it and by means which cannot possibly realize it.

I worked for 1199 for six months last winter and spring, on the staff of the union’s magazine, and I’m not certain which view is true. Sometimes I thought that the union was the best institution that exists in overground America. But I am not sure whether that is saying much, or whether it is saying far too little.

This article has been long in the making and difficult to write for a number of reasons. My personal loyalty and respect for the people who run 1199 is immense, though the publication of this article will make me their enemy. Second, the lack of clarity which surrounds political thinking on unions and the working class is historic and boundless. I began work at the union as a rather orthodox New Leftist, which means in practice a keen nose for authoritarianism and manipulation and a basic sense of the need for revolution, but perhaps less sensitivity to many other equally important categories of analysis and possible options. I am more aware in retrospect than I was at the time that the union is composed in large measure of women and is run chiefly by men. I hope that a later observer of unions and of women will be able to analyze, in a way that I have not, the role of sex in the issues described here.

I ended my stay at the union with more questions than when I began, questions which could not be wholly answered by the strategy either of “reform” or “revolution” but which sought to discover what the conditions of real liberation in a modern society would be. The purpose of this article is to share the experience and suggest some of the questions.


Local 1199 was founded in 1932 as a union of Depression-ridden professional pharmacists, mostly Jewish and many Communist. It remained a small leftwing union until 1958, when a number of decisions and accidents led it to undertake a major organizing drive in the city’s voluntary hospitals. This meant, in practical terms, that the costly effort to unionize the blacks and Puerto Ricans enslaved in the labyrinthine laundries, kitchens, and sub-basements of New York’s “prestige” medical institutions was underwritten in large part by the same middle-class Jews who now fret over the leadership’s support for the “anti-Semitic” Panthers and grow apoplectic over the refusal of the president, Leon Davis, to be an apologist for Israel.

The coexistence of these political eras and ethnic groupings within the union has a real impact, in spite of the fact that the pharmacists and other drugstore employees are compartmentalized into a separate Drug Division. The heroic age of drugstore organizing fathered a large percentage of the union’s present white leadership. The 6,000 members of the union who work in the retail drug industry—older people, Jews, largely suburban—are not overlooked when policy is being made: they have a conservative impact on the way political positions are formulated.


Thus when the union supports the Panthers, it carefully supports their constitutional right to exist, a First Amendment issue, and not their program; in discussing Vietnam, the union is careful to point out that high interest rates resulting from inflation affect the suburban homeowner as much as the shortage of housing affects the slum dweller. The white members of 1199 have been swamped—but they are still there, they have an honorable history, and, in ways that are hard to isolate because they are inseparable from the organization itself, they have an effect.

The communist experience, which touched the lives of many members of the staff, has left its mark as well. There is an uncritical acceptance of democratic centralism as democratic; a glorification of the union leadership; a sacrifice of personal principles to organizational demands; a sectarian overreaction to opposition. These tendencies, of course, have other causes than their roots in the Communist Party. They are partly inherent in the nature and function of American trade unions and in the nature and function of large organizations generally. The point is that the communist heritage of 1199 has been consistent with the other factors that have shaped the union; it certainly has posed no obstacle to them.

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.”

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.

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.

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.)