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.
The workers picketed--before and after their shifts only--in protest of Keady's firing, and the incipient union quickly grew to include a large majority of them. But Fertel repeatedly refused to meet with them to discuss their grievances.
The showdown came when Fertel fired a kitchen-worker who was unable to perform his old job because of swollen hands. The workers claimed that there was no reason for the firing. The kitchen-worker could have been transferred to a new job. They demanded that Fertel reinstate the kitchen-worker and Keady and that he recognize the union.
Ninety workers sat-in Fertel's office to dramatize the demands. After about three hours Fertel gave in and agreed to negotiate with the union.
SDS's help was important, probably crucial, to the victory. Its support consisted mainly of a commitment of time by about 25 students. In the early critical stages of organizing they stood outside the hospital from 6:30 to 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. several days a week leafleting and talking with workers as they came on duty. They also attended all the evening union meetings and advised on strategy. They manned the picket lines and stirred up support for the movement among various professional men, clergymen, and Jewish organizations in the community. But about the only material aid that SDS could contribute was the use of its mimeograph machine.
The Hospital Workers Association at Jewish Memorial became Local 35 of the International Union of Wholesale and Retail Department Store Workers this fall. Keady, now president of the Jewish Memorial union, and SDS decided to affiliate with a major union in the hope of getting financial help for their organizing campaign against the GBHC hospitals.
The present drive is still in its initial, most difficult stages at most of the hospitals. The first task of the organizers is to win over a core of workers who will form an organizing committee inside the hospital. Ideally, the organizers will place a union sympathiser in each department who can talk to people and sign them up during work. At Jewish Memorial SDS had a ready-made fifth column in the two workers who approached them. But they are starting more from scratch at the GBHC hospitals.
Steven W. Raudenbush '68, a member of the SDS Labor Committee, who spends fifteen hours a week outside a hospital, described the early groundwork for putting together the fifth column: "You try to talk to people as they come to work. Usually, I start by asking them if they've heard of the union at Jewish Memorial. Often they just say 'yes' or 'no' and walk on. That doesn't necessarily mean they aren't interested: it's cold or they're in a hurry. You have to expect to go slow. You have to let them take the initiative. Sometimes one will show more interest and want to talk. All the time, I'm memorizing faces. I'm getting to know who are the potential leaders--whom you can talk with and whom you can't."
After about a week and a half of leafleting and talking last fall outside the several large hospitals, SDS called a general membership meeting of non-professional workers at all the hospitals. About 50 or 60 showed up, and Raudenbush considers that a good turn-out. They signed up several workers that day and the inside organizing committees were alive in several of the hospitals.
But that's a small beginning considering that there are 4000 to 5000 workers in this hospital complex. It will take a lot more work before the organizers win over a majority of the workers, a task that took just about a month and a half at Jewish Memorial.
Favorable, But Cautious
SDS characterizes the majority of these several thousand workers as favorable to a union, but very cautious. "Most of them want to sign up," Raudenbush said, "but they won't unless they think everyone else is." Consequently, after the hard-core inside organizing committee is formed, the union's task is to win over the cautious by generating confidence that the movement is snowballing.
At Jewish Memorial confidence was quite effectively generated with a lunchroom boycott. Most workers who favor the union -- no matter how slightly -- will participate in a tactic of such low-level provocation. "You can't get fired for not eating lunch," Raudenbush remarked. He estimated that even if only one-fourth of the workers are actually signed up on union cards, this tactic would get support from a majority. The boycott showed the administration at Jewish Memorial the solidarity of the workers. More important it showed the workers their own strength.
Most unions have their battle won when they get majority support. The state labor relations law requires man- agement to recognize a union which a majority of the workers in a shop have voted to authorize. But non-professional hospital workers are not covered by the law.
The right to strike is a delicate question where hospital worker's are concerned. "We'd never try to shut a hospital down," Raudenbush said, "Workers wouldn't go along. Any strike we would have would be of non-essential workers and there'd be plenty of notice so that the hospital could get volunteers to take their place." Such a strike can still be a powerful weapon. It would be very costly if a hospital had to call in a catering service to replace its kitchen staff, for example.
One hospital administrator rebutted SDS's contention that such a strike would not be detrimental to patient care by claiming that there are no non-essential workers in a hospital "when you come right down to it." "Even the housekeeping staff is essential to prevent the spread of infection, to maintain the antiseptic environment." But SDS's point is that hospitals can find temporary replacements to perform these functions if they are given advance notice of the strike.
Although the present organizing drive is still in its early stages at all the hospitals, the initial response has definitely been better some places than others. SDS is considering concentrating on just the most promising hospitals, but there is an advantage to hitting all GBHC hospitals at once.
These hospitals have interlocking boards of directors. Benenson and other members of the Labor Committee fear that if they just hit one of the hospitals at a time, the others in the council will be able to relieve the labor pressure with money and by sharing facilities. For example, if one hospital were struck, it might be able to resist worker demands by transferring many of its patients to another hospital and waiting out the strike. Of course this couldn't happen if all the hospitals were in danger of being struck simultaneously.
Benenson claims that the GBHC has met to discuss a unified strategy against the movement, but so far the hospitals have resorted to a pretty conventional bag of tricks to discourage the workers. They have threatened to fire workers who become involved in the movement. They have not carried out the threats, realizing that such action would just unite the workers behind the movement.
They have also tried what Raudenbush calls sweet-talking. They call a worker in and say, "We like you and have a lot of hope for your advancement. But we don't think you should get involved in this union." "This tack breaks down when the workers start talking and realize everyone's been promised advancement, Raudenbush said:
One GBHC hospital even carried out a ten cent raise. "This is to make the workers think their bosses are such a bunch of nice guys that there's no need for a union," Raudenbush said. He attributed the raise entirely to the pressure that the drive was beginning to exert in that hospital. There would be more raises when they really got organized, Raudenbush explained to the workers.
The hostility of the hospital administrations is one reason why many workers are so cautious about joining the union. There is a definite air of the underground to the movement. For example, Raudenbush related, "you never sign up a worker outside a hospital in plain view. They're afraid their bosses might see them. Some workers won't even talk to us they're so frightened."
But Raudenbush admits there are other reasons for the slowness with which the movement is progressing at some of the GBHC hospitals. In particular, he feels that students are handicapped by their youth when they try to organize adults. "When you've been getting the same salary for 25 years and supporting your family at a certain standard, and some kid tells you he's going to change your life, you're inclined to be skeptical."
Another reason for the slowness is that the organizers slacked off during Christmas vacation and exam period after a concerted drive in the fall. "If you stir up a lot of enthusiasm and then desert for a few weeks, you kill morale," Raudenbush said. "You've got to keep at it." Apparently impressed by the Jewish Memorial success, the teamsters recently asked SDS Labor Committee to help them organize insurance workers. The Committee declined in order to devote themselves entirely to hospital organizing.
Some workers are suspicious of the whole labor movement. "I was in a union for ten years at another job and all it did was take my money" is a typical complaint. But SDS has an answer for these workers: "We agree with you about the American labor movement and we hope to form a different kind of union here."
Essentially, SDS criticizes the labor movement for being undemocratic and for limiting itself to bread-and-butter issues. A good union, SDS believes, operates through participatory democracy. All questions--how shop stewards will be appointed, the amount of dues, the nature of the contract--should be referred to the rank-and-file to be decided by majority vote.
A good union also should create a political consciousness in its members by taking stands on a broad spectrum of questions which affect the workers, like civil rights and Vietnam. The union should educate its membership on these issues through film series, lectures and discussions.
The general worker response to a statement of SDS ideals is an unbelieving. "You really think you can succeed in doing that?" Even Raudenbush admits it's a very big question. After all, SDS doesn't run the unions they help organize. It has limited itself to a purely advisory role.
When the workers at Jewish Memorial invited SDS to take one seat on the committee that negotiated with Fertel, SDS refused. "We don't want to get involved in the bureaucracy of it," Benenson said. But neither do they intend to desert unions they have succeeded in forming. They continue to attend union meetings at Jewish Memorial and help plan educational programs. SDS speaks at the meetings, and SDSers are convinced that it speaks with great influence. Benenson says, "They respect us because we fought with them from the beginning. Several SDSers at Jewish Memorial have as much influence in the meetings as any of the members of the union.