Organizing Is About People

Carl Finamore

With God on Our Side
The Struggle for Workers’ Rights in a Catholic Hospital
by Adam D. Reich
Cornell University Press, 2011, 151 pages + notes and index, $26 hardcover.

WITH GOD ON Our Side is a very catchy book title, which may appear at first glance to be quite topical in that religion so dominates — and distorts, many would add — political discussion in this country. But if curiosity may initially draw the reader’s eye, the subtitle “The Struggle for Workers’ Rights in a Catholic Hospital” gives it away: This is a book about organized labor and workers.

Books about labor post dreadfully low sales. But Adam Reich has written a most readable and colorful chronicle, “the story of a group of worker leaders, union organizers, and religious allies to help workers win a union election at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, a Catholic hospital in the small city of Santa Rosa, California, about an hour north of San Francisco.”

Reich is openly partisan when he says, “These leaders’ humor, wisdom and deep commitment to social justice represent for me what is best about the modern U.S. labor movement.” (xiii)

The story carries political lessons far beyond the geography of this small-town power struggle — lessons about people and why some act so passionately to improve their lives. Reich captures the human character and personality of the painfully long seven-year effort that finally succeeded in December 2009, when several hundred workers at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital (SRMH) voted for representation by the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

Following employer appeals, the National Labor Relations Board finally certified the results in May 2010. Only in December of that year did the employer recognize the union.

Reich delves not only into the nature of hospital work and union politics, but also into the very personal aspect of the story, exploring with sensitivity why people under pressure act and react as they do. With significant insight, he also describes how to frame appeals to their consciousness in ways that are specifically and individually crafted.

Worker leaders ignore this advice at their great peril.

For example, Reich points out that when the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) first attempted to organize the hospital in 2004-5, the SRMH administration “was able to win the first round of the campaign not only by using standard antiunion strategies but also by appealing to those values of caring and compassion to which the union did not clearly speak.”

These concerns are of particular interest to healthcare workers, who often declare that their keen social consciousness derives from the very nature of their work providing quality patient care.

Reich cites a SRMH union organizer suggesting that “you have to organize people to a vision of good.”

By 2009, the NUHW was able to win a majority — even though the SEIU was actively attempting to sabotage it. “The union was no longer a group of outsiders but was part of the community of the hospital…A vote for the union was no longer understood as a vote against the hospital, as it had been (at least for some) in the earlier campaign.” (143)

The Personal is Political

While Reich concedes that healthcare workers perhaps naturally pay more attention than most other workers to social concerns beyond simple bread and butter issues, he concludes that unions as a whole should also pay attention to compelling moral and social issues and “see themselves less as interest-based organizations and more as values-based organizations.”

Thus, while With God on Our Side has a very clear political message, it is also very much about psychology and sociology and the insights these disciplines offer to explain how and why people act to change their lives. Reich helps us understand why some give up while others persevere against “countless obstacles.”

Every union organizer can relate to these observations because they appreciate much better than the general public that organizing campaigns are fundamentally and primarily about people, who they are and what they want. We know that organizing a union bears absolutely no resemblance to the vulgar and cynical right-wing misrepresentation and caricature of “big union bosses” seeking more dues money.

Workers, always wary of phony promises and selfish motives, would easily see through this duplicity. Elections are won only if workers support collective bargaining and seek to influence working conditions that improve their lives — and in the case of healthcare workers, the lives of their patients.

To be successful, you must involve and win a majority of workers.The campaign at SRMH reveals just how difficult this can be and describes the obstacles overcome by the hospital organizing committee.

For example, one of the more dramatic aspects of the story is the surprisingly antagonistic role played by the socially progressive order of nuns that owned SRMH. Reich recounts how the nuns used their credentials and moral authority to disparage union supporters as “greedy.”

I asked NUHW organizer Peter Tappeiner about this. “Both management and the sisters painted anyone who supported the union as ‘anti-hospital,’” he told me. “Questioning their commitment to their patients was very hurtful as many workers at this small community hospital were very proud of their work. This was also very effectively used to demoralize workers, especially when combined with management’s more overt threats and coercion.”

But it wasn’t only management that opposed workers getting a union. Reich describes the disgraceful actions of SEIU, one of the nation’s largest unions. SEIU acted cynically against the interests of workers by its shameful attempts to delay and thwart the election at SRMH, all because of its unrelenting opposition to NUHW.

Eventually, NUHW activists prevailed over everything thrown at them. Through it all, “workers gained a very deep understanding of their own power and that of the employer,” Glenn Goldstein emphasized to me. Goldstein was organizing director of NUHW throughout the SRMH campaign.

“Union supporters understood, for example, that they not only had to organize co-workers but that they also had to reach out to the community in order to counter the hospital’s powerful anti-union campaign.”

Their efforts paid off. “As a result of the successful organizing effort at SRMH,” Goldstein added, “we set a precedent for caregivers in other St. Joseph Health System Catholic hospitals, which are the largest non-union healthcare employer in California.”

Tappeiner further explained that “we now have the opportunity to negotiate election ground rules so that workers are in a better position to organize elsewhere without the hostile anti-union campaign we faced at SRMH such as supervisory one-on ones, mandatory meetings with management and disparagement of the union.”

The thousands of Occupy movement activists, who so enthusiastically embraced the labor movement and the struggle of the 99%, would greatly benefit by understanding better what actually motivates people to carry on against odds to improve their lives.

In fact, we all can learn from the author as he examines what happened over the course of a difficult seven years of organizing through personal glimpses of those on both sides of the dispute.

The author concludes his account with a cautionary note about the difficulties of contract negotiations that were pending in November 2011. Yet with hopes of more victories to come, it is worth studying this story of labor organizing, perseverance and the triumphs of spirit that carried the majority through the long race over the finish line.

July/August 2012, ATC 159

1 comment

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