SDS Beats Teamsters at Their Own Game, Organizes Hospital Workers in Roxbury

SDS Is Now Helping to Organize About Six Major Area Hospitals

(The following article was written after discussions with members of the SDS Labor Committee. The views an hospital organizing techniques represent the policies of the United Hospital Workers as developed by the union members and officers with participation by SDS members. -- Ed.'s note.)

Two workers from Jewish Memorial Hospital in Roxbury approached the Harvard chapter of Students for a Democratic Society last April and asked SDS to help them organize the non-professional workers at the hospital into a union.

They also asked the Teamsters for help. But the Teamsters weren't interested. Organizing hospital workers involved too many problems. It didn't look like good business to them. But it was good business for SDS.

Non-professional hospital workers--kitchen employees, maintenance men, housekeepers, laundry women, supply employees--are very low-paid. So they can't pay very high union dues.

They are hard to organize for several other reasons. They are a high-turnover group. The strike has only limited use for a hospital worker since patients' lives are at stake. A further difficulty is that non-professional hospital workers are not covered by the state labor relations law, which requires management to recognize a union as soon as it has the support of a majority of the workers in a shop.

But for SDS, the plight of the hospital workers was an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. It gave them a chance to make their conception of the ideal labor union a reality. In addition, since most of the workers at Jewish Memorial are Roxbury Negroes, the union would provide them a good base for community organizing in the ghetto.

The day after the two workers asked for help, SDS representatives met with them and offered the active support of their organization. The chances of successfully organizing a union looked dim. Harold B. Benenson '67, an SDS organizer, recalled that first meeting: "There were only five of us then. We sat around and despaired."

But four months later, the administration of Jewish Memorial recognized the newly formed Hospital Workers Association as the bargaining agent for the non-professional workers and had negotiated a contract with the union which granted most of the workers' demands. About 170 of the 180 non-professional workers had become card-carrying members of the union.

A Considerable Victory

It was a considerable victory for the workers and SDS since Jewish Memorial was the first private voluntary hospital in Massachusetts where non-professional workers have succeeding in forming a union. SDS joined with organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality in 1959-60 to organize the first private voluntary hospitals in New York City. The New York City hospital workers union now has about 20,000 members, but tha tprecedent had not been followed with much success nationally until Jewish Memorial.

Flushed with success, SDS is now trying to organize about half a dozen of Boston's largest private hospitals, members of the powerful Greater Boston Hospital Council, Inc. Jewish Memorial's 200 beds are small stuff compared to any one of these hospitals. SDS and the union are limiting organizing to private hospitals because workers in state hospitals are represented by public employees' unions.

Catches on Quickly

The idea of a union caught on quickly with the workers at Jewish Memorial, but it was accepted by the administration only after considerable skirmishing.

As an initial step, the organizers drew up a petition of demands and circulated it among the workers. It called for a minimum wage of $1.65, which represented a 35-cent raise for most of the workers. It also demanded time and a half for overtime, Blue Cross-Blue Shield coverage, creation of a procedure of dealing with worker grievances, seniority provisions, and recognition of the union as a collective bargaining agent.

In a week, 75 workers had signed the petition. Francis P. Keady, an X-ray technician and one of the workers who had originally contacted SDS, presented it to Murray Fertel, Executive Director of Jewish Memorial. Fertel immediately fired Keady and granted none of his demands.