Nurses and other healthcare workers in St. Louis are taking things into
their own hands. Fed up with a healthcare system organized to create profit
rather than provide care, they have decided to wage battle. The United Health
Care Workers of Greater St. Louis is conducting a massive organizing drive
designed to unionize all of the city's healthcare workers as a counterbalance
to the power of the big managed-care systems.
Since 1997, according to The Progressive, the union has gathered
2,500 signature cards in support of its "Campaign for Justice,"
which is seeking to organize the entire St. Louis healthcare industry. Organizers
have been canvassing healthcare employees throughout the St. Louis area,
among all worker classifications, The Progressive reported in September.
The idea is to create a broad-based union that allows all healthcare workers
to work for the same goals.
The industry-wide approach is a new one for the St. Louis healthcare industry,
The Progressive said, coming after a number of smaller union drives
collapsed when workers with different job classifications fought for different
goals and were unable to place themselves on the same page.
This time, however, the nurses and their colleagues in the healthcare industry
are hopeful their organizing drive can be successful, primarily because
they've decided to work together.
"The systems are so big and powerful now, that if we don't really try
to appeal to the different sectors, go wall to wall, hospital to hospital,
system to system, community-wide, we're going to have a tough time battling
them," Sharon Penrod, chairperson of the union's steering committee
and a nurse at St. John's Mercy Medical Center, told The Progressive.
The approach seems to be taking root--and workers across the country should
take note. Managed-care systems have used the same kind of divide-and-conquer
techniques that employers in other industries have used for years to break
up union organizing drives--the result being that individual organizing
drives have fallen apart as workers have sought to protect their own positions
rather than change the way the system was working.
To continue to plod along, concerned about individual contracts, seems fruitless
given the ability of companies to pit workers against each other. Union
organizers need to start thinking about new structures based on the idea
that all labor union locals need to work together to protect workers from
the vicissitudes of the 21st Century economy.
In their article "Labor's Day, the challenge ahead," in the Sept.
21 issue of The Nation, Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello say the need
for workers "to be able to coordinate their actions not only with one
another but with others in the same company, industry and occupation elsewhere"
may require "a system of councils representing workers from different
unions in the same industry or company or occupation." And they say
that the labor movement must work to set national and international workplace
and wage standards, enforced either by law or by direct labor-union action,
to keep business from pitting "workers, communities and whole countries
against one another, establishing what has been called a global hiring hall"
that has driven down wages and kept unions from providing workers with a
voice equal to that of capital.
But before this can happen, workers at competing companies and in different
job classifications need to see themselves as allies. The trend has been
toward replacement of full-timers with part-timers and temporary workers,
which creates increased competition among job seekers and among those faced
with the prospect of conversion to contingency status. This competition
has helped sound the death knell for many an organizing drive, as workers
remained docile out of fear that their jobs could be eliminated.
This may be starting to happen. The United Auto Workers managed to maintain
solidarity during its recent strike against GM--and garner significant public
support--despite the fact that the strike forced the carmaker to close dozens
of plants temporarily and put hundreds out of work. In the past, one might
have expected the laid-off workers to complain or rebel. Not this time.
Workers interviewed said they supported the strike and the strikers and
were willing to stay out of work as long as necessary.
The reason: Workers understand the uncertainty of the global economy, that
jobs are likely to flow to the lowest paid workers or the cheapest plants
to run, and they understand that their best hope is to band together. And
that means coming together with all workers.
The majority of successful strikes in recent years were won because workers
stuck together, regardless of whether it was their contract at stake or
whether the issues on the table directly affected them, and managed to gain
When Teamsters struck UPS last year, workers demonstrated a remarkable solidarity--even
though the main issue was boosting pay for part-time workers. Why? The Teamsters
understood that, unless part-timers could be guaranteed a shot at full-time
employment and provided with a decent wage, full-timers could not be guaranteed
the same. This created the incentive for full-timers to stand on the picket
line and weather a strike that lasted two weeks and shut down an entire
This kind of worker solidarity is all the more important as the nature of
the economy changes. The more the corporate world goes global, the more
it relies on its ability to move jobs and production capabilities anywhere
in the world at almost a moment's notice, the more unions will be needed.
If they are to be up to the task they will have to work together, will have
to organize new members in new jobs and across job classifications, regions
and industries and offer real alternatives and a social vision.
The alternatives are too disheartening to mention.
Hank Kalet is news editor for two community newspapers in New Jersey.
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