Last year we wrote the an article, featured below, ahead of the mayoral and several important local elections. Despite the election of Bill DeBlasio, supposed hospital supporter extraordinaire, and Leticia James as public advocate, the conditions of healthcare for poor and working class people in the city have definitely not improved. Shortly after de Blasio’s election, LICH hospital finally closed under the spirited protest of workers and community members. Conditions for Home Health Aids continue to decline, and the public housing projects near closing hospitals go heavily policed and with intermittent services such as electricity and water. Despite the inability for elected officials to change these conditions, FloJo isn’t discouraged. Over the last year we’ve met incredible people engaged in struggles against their exploitative conditions and for a new kind of care. This month we’re launching our “Care Worker’s Support Network” to help build campaigns of struggle in workplaces around the city–so hit us up if you have demands in your workplace or community and need support. This election day, we’re “voting” for everyday people–CNAs, HHAs, nurses, patients, teachers, secretaries, nannies, and everyone struggling to create a new world!
Besides LICH, here are some exciting struggles of the last “election” year:
- After a fervent struggle by workers and community members, North Central Bronx Hospital was compelled to re-open their Labor and Delivery Unit
- In Oregon, precarious teachers at the University are going on strike and are continuing to fight even with the threats of backlash
- The people of Ferguson continue to resist violence against their community by police
- Know of struggles we didn’t include? Send us an email or leave a comment!
Click here or scroll down to continue to last year’s “Election day Special!”
In July, a last minute contract reached by 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East leadership and hospital executives in New York City averted a one-day strike that was to impact 70,000 health-care workers in over 100 hospitals and nursing homes. During the previous week, union members voted 95% in favor of the strike and 1,500 low-wage healthcare workers in Staten Island picketed for better benefits and working conditions.
The contract promises an annual raise of 3% in year 1 and 2, followed by 3.5% in year 3 and 4 of the deal. In addition, workers will receive full health insurance coverage but will reduce pension payments by employers. Several questions remain unanswered such as new hiring practices, the unclear future of outpatient clinics—especially in the newly merged health Contiuum Health Systems, overwork and short-staffing, the closure of units in various hospitals, and the overcrowding due to closed units and hospitals elsewhere; not to mention the ongoing working conditions in most city hospitals, which include concerns over safety and wellness related to shortstaffing, the inability to take breaks, and the division between workers in different paygrades. In short, the union is fighting a purely defensive battle, but still aren’t able to maintain the standards of workers, only to stave off a percentage of the attacks.
In addition, while there is a pay increase, it is not retroactive to pay for neglected cost of living increases in previous years. Furthermore, whole those who voted were overwhelmingly in agreement, many workers felt that yes, a strike was necessary, but not on the terms set by the union. Of our colleagues with whom we spoke, and other healthcare workers we surveyed who are 1199 members, many expressed extreme dissatisfaction. If the one-day strike had happened, no strike pay would have been offered. Furthermore, workers felt that they were being told to go on strike, not that they were deciding to strike. Finally, many workers were dismayed with the demands of the strike; while the potential rise in cost of health insurance matters, it is a relatively minor aspect of de-facto decreasing wages, overwork, and the potential at any time for a worker to lose her job. It is important to understand worker critiques of the strike not as a critique of taking action, but of the content of the demands, and the complete lack of democratic control. Workers feel like they get told when to come to work and when not to, and the master seems the same whether management or union leadership.
Another healthcare is possible
The overwhelming vote in favor of the strike is not surprising. Healthcare workers are upset and seeking new alternatives. Unlike the rest of the non-unionized private sector, healthcare unions are recruiting record numbers of workers. Since 2010, healthcare strikes have risen by 73% and numbers of days on strike have risen by 27%. Despite ambiguous claims by ‘expert’ academic and policy analysts claiming rising mortality following hospital strikes, such analysis ignores the motivating factors behind worker initiated strikes – such as unsafe working conditions, administrators’ use of inexperienced temporary workers, mandatory overtime and weekend shifts, lack of ancillary staff which delays vital diagnostic and treatment procedures, and higher volumes of patients in the face of staff shortages that have all been blamed for rising deaths and costs. Studies also neglect the critical role of strikes in protecting healthcare facilities in underserved communities that would otherwise be left with no access to immediate care.
Despite the increased mobilization of healthcare workers in unions, why is New York left with fewer hospitals? Why are our workplaces getting busier and more stressful? Why do we work so closely with another (the janitors, nurses, techs, doctors, social workers, aides) and yet are carved out into different unions that rarely talk or show solidarity for one another? And why is our relationship with the union more like a “grievance mill” filing for individual complaints rather than forums for collective reflection and larger-scale organizing?
More often, those we trust to be our representatives (such as hospital and union hierarchies, politicians, ‘expert’ academics) are unaware of immediate conditions in the units and clinics. We (healthcare workers) should open new forms of collectively practicing our visions for a better form of practicing care. We hope these suggestions may be of use:
- Find times and spaces inside and outside the hospital that can launch conversations that bring together all of our co-workers (i.e. nurses, aides, techs, janitors, doctors) to vent but also think of solutions that can make our workplaces safer and less stressful. For example, one lunch per week on the unit could be a relaxed space to hear one another’s concerns and consider immediate solutions. And for solutions that might benefit other units or require more resources and support, we can start having a monthly lunch with other units to explore larger-scale alternatives.
- We must identify ways to sustain our group meetings, be it in the form of regular lunches, committees, or gatherings outside work that link with other unit staff and present larger-scale concerns to hospital administration for immediate attention. And if ignored, mobilizing co-workers to find new strategies to press for a response.
- We must challenge our unions and locals to begin working in solidarity with other unions that represent other skilled professionals in our hospitals. Our work relies entirely on a team-based approach, so we must help one another, including our ‘temporary’ co-workers secure full-time jobs.
- We must not only avoid working over-time, but have protected time of at least several hours per week, in which we are free of clinical responsibilities to participate in quality improvement projects. These projects involve receiving training in health services research and finding solutions to improve the quality of care in our specific units and clinics. The work is rewarding and helps nurture real leadership and team-work skills.
- The protected time from clinical duties can also help us initiate projects that build stronger links with community groups to address locally pressing health issues, such as diabetes, asthma, alcoholism, or obesity. Many of our hospitals have lots of meeting space for support groups, educational and prevention projects, workshops, health fairs, and other forms of community support. Often sharing resources and skills with the community empowers residents to improve their health in a respectful and perhaps more effective form than if it were to be addressed in an ER or clinic. It also allows residents to see us, healthcare workers, as people that genuinely care for their well-being beyond acute or emergency care, and may support us if we were facing our own crisis, such as a closures or lay-offs.
The holidays have been a whirlwind for Interfaith Medical Center employees. 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 SEIU 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. This news comes after months of reprieves, an injunction, and other delays. The fate of Interfaith Medical Center, and the 1,544 employees that work there, has been unclear since August, when the workers received layoff notices.
This disempowering news is characteristic of the behind-the-scenes struggles NYSNA and 1199 have been waging. Similarly to Interfaith, Long Island College Hospital (LICH) received news on December 17th that its operators, State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate, will no longer seek developers to tear down the hospital. This apparently means that SUNY will continue to operate the hospital indefinitely, despite losing an estimated $13 million per month. Employees and patients at both LICH and Interfaith have been holding on by a thread for months, waiting for news from the unions. Meanwhile, the unions have undemocratically engaged in back room negotiations, and paraded out workers only when it served the union’s agenda. The LICH and Interfaith campaigns are clearly not about building worker power but ensuring Bill de Blasio’s election and the unions’ position as the workers’ “official leadership.”
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.
For the past four months, the vast majority of LICH workers have been going to work, despite having only between 29-40 of their 506 beds filled. Although workers continue to go in, there are real effects of the shuttering of the majority of beds: some doctors have left to other hospitals, closing down parts of units, and SUNY (who owns LICH) uses the imposed lack of patients (patients still show up to LICH requesting care) to funnel people to SUNY Downstate in Flatbush, which is also receiving cuts.
Last week, management announced plans to the union to cut the vast majority of programs, only leaving a few emergency medical services in tact, including the ICU and the emergency department, but not the operating room, labor and delivery, medical surgery, or other complimentary departments, meaning patients would need to be transferred in critical condition, and calling for a layoff of the vast majority of workers. Through legal negotiation, the layoffs have been postponed, but the struggle is not over. Workers and patients at LICH have been strong and resolute in their struggle, and will need to continue. On Tuesday, Bill DeBlasio will likely become mayor, and workers will be left to struggle against management, the state, and the new rounds of medical repayments that will continue in their way. Many workers and patients refer to the workers continuing to go to work through the patient closures as an “occupation.” This kind of militancy is necessary to keep our hospitals open, and to continue and improve care!
As Florence Johnston Collective prepares for a picket tonight at 7PM, things have been heating up at Interfaith over the last week. Over 1,500 workers and 250,000 patients enter their 5th month of waiting to find out if they will have jobs, emergency services, mental health services, ob/gyn care, and more after Interfaith management, with pressure from the NYS Department of Health, filed bankruptcy in December of 2012 after receiving promises of extra funding if they completed the closure. Since then, negative changes have already started at the hospital making working conditions deteriorate and patient care slide downhill, including the departure of many workers (ex, 30% of nurses at IMC are now per diem). Politicians and the two major unions–NYSNA and SEIU 1199–have raised a few possibilities to keep the hospital open, but none of these proposals addresses the long-term problems at Interfaith-overwork, stress leading to competition between workers, long wait times, and a long list of citations since the announcement of closure. In fact, all of the proposals from the unions and political candidates, if they are successful in keeping the hospital open, will either maintain the same poor conditions or worsen them. Meanwhile, FJC is looking to Greece and to Harlem for examples of creating new health systems by and for workers and the community.
Here is a list of the major proposals by the union leaders and politicians:
1) The hospital stays open with limited state funds until NY State receives a “Medicaid Waiver”, money given to the State DoH because they cut 17.1 billion in Medicaid over the last 3 years. This proposals rests on the assumption that the cuts to Medicaid are somehow unrelated to the decline in the hospital itself–which is unlikely–and does not include concerns over how restrictions on how Medicaid money will be used.
2) Broker a merger between Interfaith and another hospital, probably Kingsbrook. Even the union says this could lead to more cuts, and the ongoing merger of St Luke’s, Roosevelt, and Mt Sinai under Continuum Health Partners has already lead to layoffs (based on information from inside the hospital, FJC believes this number is much lower than actual, since housekeeping staff have been facing layoffs since before the merger).
3) Rely on Mayoral Candidate Bill Deblasio and Public Advocate hopeful Leticia James to pull strings with the state and bankruptcy court–hardly a long term solution.
Florence Johnston Collective’s picket tonight is the first explicit step in a collective process for stopping hospital closures that doesn’t just keep sub-par service going with exploited workers, but builds community and worker control over the hospital itself. We have given the politicians and union leaders plenty of time–its time to take matters into our own hands! Community and Worker Control over Interfaith Now!
We’ve been working with a group of RNs, CNAs, and other workers at St. Luke’s Hospital in the Harlem area. St. Luke’s recently signed a merger contract with nearby Mt. Sinai Medical Continuum to merge the two hospitals. Studies have shown that large health systems, such as St. Luke’s and Mt. Sinai, oftentimes merge in order to have more leverage to charge higher insurance premiums. This could mean increased costs of care, and a reduction in hospital beds. Communities near St. Luke’s are aware of this possibility, and have encouraged the local Community Board 9 to demand increased care for specific populations, including asthmatic children.
However, this is too little too late. Hospital workers, patients, and community members need to build power from below and pressure the new Mt. Sinai system to ensure not only job security and adequate service provision, but a complete end to job and salary cuts, increased workloads, and pressure to receive endless certifications and “official” education. When workers are overworked, we are unable to serve our clients and patients. We must work together to get all of our needs met.
We created a flyer with St. Luke’s workers and have been passing them out and postering them around the hospital. So far we are finding that most people know about the merger and are concerned about what it will mean for their job. They have been eager to take our flyer.
St. Luke’s workers understand that they are not alone. Mergers and closures like this are happening all over the city, and many are fighting back. The 1199 SEIU local has called an action on Thursday, August 29 at 4pm at 7th Ave and Greenwich Ave. This is a meaningless symbolic action aimed at workers at Interfaith Hospital in Bed-Stuy. We will be at the action passing out our flyer and meeting workers who want to build a real struggle to control how, when, and how much we work.
As always, call or email us if you’d like to help flyer, or for more information on the hospital workers campaign.
We are the Florence Johnston Collective!!!
Our struggle is a continuation of the militants of the past. Florence Johnston is a cultural figure who represents our contradictory history as childcare, aides, respite, education, and service workers, and as working class women and people of color.