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What I Learned in a Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement

Jane McAlevey writes in her new book, "Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell)," about creative and effective organizing tactics in the fight against bosses and national labor leaders.

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Nothing less than depraved indifference,” was how Dr. Paul Verrette described the evacuation of Chalmette Medical Center, the UHS hospital in St. Bernard Parish during Hurricane Katrina. Verrette was medical director of St. Bernard’s emergency preparedness office. The Chalmette staff was left alone as power failed, water rose, and patients died. As nurse Charlene Gonzalez told the national press, “They left me to die and now nobody’s even called to say, ‘Thank you.’ ” Then, just a few weeks after the flood, UHS sent a message to its 2,800 hospital workers in New Orleans that everyone definitely heard: With the hospitals out of commission, their pay and medical benefits would be cut off in two weeks. [1]

The CEO who signed off on these decisions was Alan Miller whose own pay had made him a multi millionaire. Miller was a personal friend of, and large donor to, President George W. Bush, and was closely aligned with him on issues like taxes, government regulation and unions. Presumably, Miller was not at all pleased when his employees at Desert Springs and Valley hospitals won contracts that set standards for pay, working conditions and patient care far above the prevailing Las Vegas norm. He hadn’t located four facilities out in a right-to-work desert to get pushed around by some upstart SEIU local, and now he decided to pull out all the stops.

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In late March the management at Desert Springs hospital had begun sending workers to mandatory captive audience meetings. In a clear sign that UHS was targeting the whole union, nurses were required to attend even though the decertification petition was only for the technical workers. A nurse would literally be in the middle of a procedure with a patient and her manager would show up and say, “Stop what you are doing and get downstairs and report to meeting room A.” If she was one of the tougher ones, she’d say, “When I am finished,” which would win her about one minute, and then the manager would be back, threatening, “You will be fired for gross insubordination if you refuse to take this assignment. You must go down to the conference room, now.” 

Brent Yessin probably thought he was playing good offense by forcing the nurses to attend the meetings, but he may have had second thoughts when he discovered just how staunchly pro-union they were. Before the first captive meetings, we brainstormed with worker leaders some creative ways to wreck the meetings. They would go to the meetings wearing their union buttons and immediately raise their hands and start asking all sorts of disruptive questions. They would clap at inappropriate times, pretend to fall asleep and snore as a group, and constantly interrupt to ask if they could go back to their patients.

For their next series of forced two-hour meetings, the Yessin team produced a scary video about SEIU Nevada. We dispatched organizers to buy hundreds of microwave popcorn packets and distribute them to all the workers as fast as they could. The break rooms at the hospital were all equipped with microwaves, and for the entire week workers walked into the screenings ready for the horror flick with popcorn in hand. In organizer shoptalk this is called cutting the tension.

By the end of April the average worker in that hospital had been through ten hours of mandatory captive audience meetings. Then management replaced the meetings with mandatory one-on-ones, working every intimidation angle they could. Evidently it had dawned on them that when you put workers who are organized and united together in the same room, even as a captive audience, the result is not exactly union-busting. Maybe their message would be more convincing in an isolation cell, er, a private office.

 
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