Solidarity Works

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 public support.

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 industry.

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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