On Friday there was a short attempted occupation at Interfaith Medical Center. This story was written just prior to that activity. Florence Johnston Collective is in the process of gathering more information on the occupation to write up an analysis. Below is the story of Interfaith Medical Center in the months leading up to last week’s occupation.
Interfaith Medical Center: A Disaster of “Titanic” Proportions
The last year has been a whirlwind for Interfaith Medical Center employees, patients, and the surrounding community. Since August, when Interfaith administrators filed for bankruptcy and originally pushed for closure and all 1,544 workers received layoff notices, there have been dozens of reprieves, court dates, and other delays. One worker we spoke to told us that her first layoff notice was a great shock, and with each delay a new one comes, the same notice with a different date, forming a neat little pile in her office that has become more of a curiosity than a cause for alarm. Most recently, on December 20th Interfaith officials announced that the hospital will close, after a failed closed door mediation with Interfaith’s unions (New York State Nurses Association and Service Employees International Union 1199), creditors and management. Three days later, Interfaith officials released another statement indicating that the hospital received a three month reprieve from the the New York State Department of Health. The hospital will remain open at least until March 7th, but nobody we’ve spoke with lately has much hope for staying on beyond this date, and some workers are convinced the axe might fall any day.
This disempowering news is characteristic of the behind-the-scenes struggles NYSNA and SEIU 1199 have been waging. The unions’ strategy has been to hold symbolic protests and acts of carefully stage-managed civil disobedience, delay the closure through court injunctions and negotiations, beg for state and federal funds to keep the hospital afloat, and put all its resources behind Bill de Blasio, ensuring his election. Taking advantage of this strategy, de Blasio used the issue to gain attention for his campaign, and to gain support among union workers and the working class people of color who his developer buddies like Bruce Ratner are working to force out of Brooklyn altogether. In the words of one hospital worker we met, “de Blasio rode the Interfaith issue to the mayor’s office.” After de Blasio secured the nomination last Fall, his once-familiar face could scarcely be seen around the hospital it had graced so photogenically during the primary. And since winning the office in November, de Blasio has been notably silent about Interfaith hospital altogether. This is consistent with his, and the unions’, cynical relationship to rank-and-file workers. It is still unclear whether the Save Interfaith Campaign was ever actually concerned with preserving the hospital, or if it simply served to elect de Blasio, and nobody can say for sure who the unions represent when they tell their workers to calm down, everything will be all right. What we do know is that the unions’ strategy is only delaying the inevitable, proving that de Blasio, 1199, NYSNA leadership, and Interfaith managers are not representatives of the working class, but willing accomplices in the attack against it.
As the situation at Interfaith changed almost weekly over the last year, most workers and patients have held onto the hope that the Medical Center will remain open. Sometimes we hear the simple words “Interfaith is not closing!”, and get looks as if we are delusional for wasting our time trying to save a hospital that is not going anywhere. This sad optimism is fueled by the union’s misinformation and lack of information. The unions have even withheld information from workers, telling them that if they want to know what’s happening, they have to come to press conferences for de Blasio, allowing the “public advocate” to appear flanked by working class New Yorkers in his photo-ops. As one Interfaith worker put it, “every day there is a new rumor,” and as another said, “we never get any [information] from the union.”
Meanwhile, other Interfaith workers have not been buying the union’s confusing and contradictory stories. Some have left Interfaith, leaving their co-workers behind with increased workloads. The Florence Johnston Collective has talked with several workers, from therapists to custodians, who are overworked since Interfaith announced bankruptcy. Still others have decided to stick it out and fight, despite a generalized anxiety and hopelessness among the workforce and patients. As one worker put it, “it’ll be like Titanic – the boat will sink with me.” These individuals who have stayed behind, determined to secure their jobs and obtain quality access to health care for the working class, are not alone, even if right now they may feel that way.
“it’ll be like Titanic – the boat will sink with me.”
Interfaith’s closure is happening amidst Long Island College Hospital’s closure battle, and a federal policy that will penalize New York’s “underperforming” hospitals, 10 out of 26 of which are in Brooklyn — that is 10 out of Brooklyn’s 13 hospitals. Interfaith could be the 20th hospital to close in New York City since 2000. At the same time, state of the art specialty clinics, which cater to high-income patients, are opening all over the city. Twenty-five new clinics have opened in the last two years in Brooklyn alone. Many of the workers the Florence Johnston Collective talks with know that this is all connected. There is a city-wide health care restructuring taking place that will weaken the working class’ ability to be healthy, while breaking down health care workers’ ability to organize. On the one hand, the poor people will have to travel further to receive the emergency services they need. On the other, workers will be forced into smaller workplaces and atomized, precarious working situations like providing health services in private homes. While people should not have to rely on crowded emergency departments as primary care, the current medical restructuring is no substitute for holistic medical care that is developed as a useful tool by and for the people who need the most medical care. When the unions and politicians say that all this is not connected, that “community issues” and “worker issues” are not the same issues, it says more about who’s side they are on than it says about what’s going on in our city.
For those of us who don’t already know which way the wind is blowing in NYC, the closure of Interfaith offers two valuable lessons for the future.
The first lesson of the Interfaith saga is one that many of our readers may know too well: Democratic Party politicians and unions talk like they are willing to fight for working class people, but at the end of the day, this is a lot of hot air. Politicians are interested in getting elected and rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful who, year after year make life harder for working class New Yorkers. Likewise, the unions have inserted themselves as a bargaining agent between workers and the bosses–not to fight the bosses, but to keep the relationship between workers and bosses intact, while skimming a little off the top in exchange for winning small improvements in workers’ lives (which, by our count, they haven’t even been able to do for a long time). A growing number of workers and community members have no use for the unions’ and politicians’ slogans, but there doesn’t seem to be any alternative, and the result is people becoming cynical about the possibility of making any change in the terrible direction things are headed. In our discussions with workers and neighbors of Interfaith, we have heard a lot about Occupy, what it accomplished and failed to do, but is was no sense that this kind of direct participation could take root in a workplace or community. It is our task to help build this alternative.
This points to the second lesson: there was, and is, a genuine desire on behalf of workers and community members to fight and save the hospital, and to generally improve their lives by any means available. The union’s symbolic protests drew large crowds of workers and neighbors, all of whom wanted to do whatever it would take to keep the hospital open. When they showed up, they were told by the unions and the politicians that all this was being taken care of, and all they had to do was link hands across the hospital for the TV cameras, or hold a de Blasio sign for a photo op. And at first, it seemed to work. We spoke with a veteran employee who bragged that he and his coworkers “stood up, fought, and saved the hospital.” Oftentimes when we expressed skepticism about the union and the politicians, many people agreed with us, but said there was no other way to fight. And let’s be fair: next to our shabby homemade protest signs, black and white xeroxed fliers, and organizers working in their free time, the unions’ and politicians’ glossy signs, professional public relations team, and full-time organizing staff may seem like a more serious alternative. But no shiny flyers, no charismatic speeches, no full-time staff can change what unions and politicians will do every time: serve the ruling class. And no group, not the SEIU, not the Democratic Party, and certainly not the Florence Johnston Collective, can provide working people with leadership when its time for them to fight for their lives. We believe that people genuinely want to fight and win, and just need to figure out how. The sooner we take de Blasio and co. out of this equation, the better.
And so, the question remains, what is necessary to save and transform Interfaith and other hospitals that are in danger of closure? Florence Johnston Collective has been looking toward histories such as the Lincoln Hospital takeover and current struggles such as the Greek hospital occupations for the answer to this question. Interfaith is not closed yet, but to keep it open it will take the strength and courage of workers and patients to break with the unions and official leadership, taking the hospital into their own hands and transforming it into a space that actually heals workers and unemployed people alike, with no concern for whether or not they can afford to be treated like human beings. The Interfaith reprieve is one more reason that workers should struggle outside the unions, forming workplace committees and cross-workplace organizations. We cannot rely on the unions, or anyone else for that matter, to struggle for us. To all those who are sick of waiting to find out if they will have a job or medical care next month, and to all those who want an end to the unions’ closed door dealings, Florence Johnston Collective supports you. Let us struggle together.