Their interests and ours

Scott Nappalos talks about union-management cooperation at a hospital he works at.

“The employers interests are our interests. We are all in a circle with the patients in the center,” a union president told us at the first meeting of nurses in my moribund hospital local. The union administrator had been sent from out of state to develop a labor-management partnership committee and try to create a collaborative relation between the bosses and the union. At my workplace, management routinely reminds aging workers they would fire a third of them if they could to achieve a “change in culture.”

The union administrator wanted us to develop programs that would cut costs for management and help our working conditions. After exploring options management would not accept and ones that would not help us, I halfjokingly suggested we fire all the managers and run the units ourselves.

A veteran nurse who usually is a union yes-woman told us a story. A hurricane swept into our state. All the hospitals initiated their emergency plans. At her hospital, the director of nursing ordered everyone to go home in the middle of the storm because she wanted to save money, and was hoping it would be a small storm.

The workers disobeyed and carried out their own plan to run the hospital without management on board. They successfully cared for the patients in a disaster situation. No one was disciplined for refusing to go home. Health care is special in that we need the services it provides. In a sense we all have common interests in keeping it running. At the same time having a class analysis of society as a whole helps us understand where management and workers’ interests diverge even in health care. Management is a class that earns its living through managing and increasing the labor of others. That pressure leads to interests against our own, and against humanity as a whole.

My coworkers at the meeting instinctively resisted the administrator’s attempts to sell partnership. Every day we face dehumanizing behavior and a factory model of lean production that turns our caring labor for others into a mechanized form of assembly labor. Our bosses routinely tell us they want to eliminate us, and would see us on the streets if they could. They do not put forward any concept of working together for the patient—instead their position is that we are the problem. Managerial organization is directed at solving the problem posed by workers unwilling and unable to conform to their engineered designs. At best, they offer us apologies for the health care system, but emphasize discipline, subservience and utilize heavy threats.

At the same time my coworkers were not inherently opposed to the idea of a partnership. We care about the patients so we see the need to have some way of moving forward. The union leadership had to pitch the idea. The workers rejected it but did not spontaneously propose class struggle as an alternative, or any alternative for that matter. This dynamic, being pulled between worlds, is not an aberration but is a part of our experience in work.

Workers are torn between two worlds—the ideas and practices of the dominating classes and our own—stunted and held back by the constant reproduction of class relationships all around us. As organizers, it is our job to draw that process out, and contribute to building the struggles that can rupture that teeter-totter and facilitate our coworkers becoming conscious of their power and interests.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (May 2011)