NEW YORK CITY, NY, June 26 — “What do we want?! BENEFITS! If we don’t get it? SHUT’EM DOWN!”
Hundreds of black and Latino hospital workers militantly chanted, sang and danced in a picket line surrounding Brookdale Hospital CEO Bruce Flanz’s house in this rich, mostly white town, about an hour north of the hospital’s site in the Bronx. The picket was organized by Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a local representing over 260,000 mostly black and Latino hospital and home healthcare workers in New York City. The workers were responding to Brookdale’s violation of its labor contract, which has forced the 3,500 hospital workers onto a more expensive health insurance plan in a racist, sexist campaign to break worker militancy and, ultimately, decertify 1199.
When Progressive Labor Party members spoke with Brookdale workers as they arrived to board the buses that morning, we met with very positive reactions. Almost every worker took a CHALLENGE, and we came away with more than a half dozen contacts. Since then we have followed up with them to plan meetings. As some of our new friends later told us, several Brookdale workers took stacks of papers on the buses with them, distributed them all, and held discussions about the Brookdale article (CHALLENGE 6/6) on the bus trip there and back.
The picket around the CEO’s house was highly militant. At the sight of the CEO’s sprawling house, the racist contrast between the living conditions of Brookdale workers and the bosses was blatantly obvious. One disgusted worker, her young daughter with her, yelled, “We’re fighting just for this [contract] when these people live like this?” Another woman worker began spreading a chant to burn down the boss’s house, before being discouraged by union marshals. The loudest and most popular chant, quoted at the top, was a call-and-response for the hospital to shut down.
Scabs Watch Out!
Class hatred for the bosses was stoked even further at the discovery of a scab standing in the CEO’s driveway, a man known only as “Martinez.” The workers crowded the edge of the property, taunting Martinez to step closer “so we can get a piece of you,” but the police and union marshals got the pickets moving again as the scab Martinez smugly raised his middle finger. A hospital worker from Jamaica warned: “Don’t you dare step back into Brookdale! I’ll be waiting for you!”
Over the past six months, Brookdale workers have shown a lot of bravery in the face of the bosses’ attacks. According to our friends inside the hospital, supervisors have been spying on workers who are organizing fight-backs. We’ve learned of two instances of spontaneous work stoppages across many hospital departments. Three weeks ago, according to several EMT and paramedic friends, the New York City Fire Department issued some unusual orders: no patients were to be brought to Brookdale. Last week, bosses at the cash-starved hospital suggested that another round of layoffs is imminent, a move that would criminally worsen an understaffing crisis.
While Brookdale workers have amply demonstrated their class hatred, the struggle’s outcome will be determined by the political line of their leadership. This is where Local 1199 represents a dead end. The sellout essence of the 1199 misleaders, from President George Gresham on down, betrays their militant appearance. Workers frankly admitted that while they want to strike, they don’t trust 1199 to support them. Some said defiantly that they should strike, “union or no union.” But apart from their spontaneous work stoppages, they have yet to follow the example of the Stella D’Oro workers, who took the lead in 2008 and spearheaded an 11-month, anti-sexist strike.
Brookdale’s workers need a mass base of support to battle their racist, sexist bosses. While 1199 talks tough and bills itself as the “largest local in the world,” it refuses to mobilize its quarter-million members in New York City in these workers’ defense. Recently the union leadership began talking about the need to get rid of Flanz and his entourage, to pave the way for a takeover of Brookdale by state officials. But these officials are the same “saviors” who have cut billions of dollars from health care and closed eight hospitals in New York City alone!
Boss-Union Hack Gang-Up
In reality, boss Flanz and hack Gresham are on the same side. Although they haggle over contract details in a show of collective bargaining, their argument is confined to how much can be taken from the workers in the current economic crisis, and how fast. Under capitalism, both bosses and unions serve one overriding goal: the exploitation of workers to generate maximum profits. The brutal workings of this system are most obvious when it targets black, Latino, and women workers, as at Brookdale. Through this super-exploitation, the capitalist ruling class pushes down wage and benefit levels for all.
PLP’s message of fighting back is spreading, evidenced by the enthusiastic response to CHALLENGE and the many contacts we’ve made. These embryonic leadership collectives will serve the interests of the working class instead of playing off their fears — the strategy of 1199 and other unions, whose job is to keep the capitalist status quo in place.
PL’ers and CHALLENGE readers around New York City have been circulating petitions and flyers to spread the word about Brookdale. In days following the picket in New City, one friend of PLP was conducting blood pressure screenings in another borough. He made available a stack of anti-racist leaflets that denounced the Brookdale bosses. One person getting her pressure checked read the leaflet and exclaimed, “My sister works for Brookdale! What can we do here to help?” She took several leaflets and contact information was exchanged. Wherever we are, we can meet people and deepen our ties.
PLP fights for both the short-term and long-term interests of the working class. By strengthening CHALLENGE networks while we build support for the Brookdale workers in our own workplaces, we are both sharpening the local struggle and moving toward our ultimate goal, a communist revolution.