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Technicians and 1199
by the Editorial Collective
In the following series of statements we have attempted to contribute to our understanding of scientific workplaces. Hospital and research laboratories are very different. Different workers may have quite different motivations and expectations. Unionization can substantially improve wages and solidify class consciousness. The two hospital labs interviewed are being organized by 1199) National Union of Hospital and Health Care Workers). Elliot Small is the Area Director of 1199 in Massachusetts. We encourage those in labs to discuss this series with their co-workers and to send us statements which reflect their experience.
TECHNICIANS IN HOSPITAL A
A woman with a bachelor’s degree in science entered the work force after raising her family.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE WORK HERE?
I’m never bored although the work is repetitive. I like being around people. Working here has stimulated me to do more reading, and the lab work encompasses immunology, arthritis and such. After being out of school so long I took microbiology for a year. I felt I updated myself on what had happened since I left school, but I couldn’t take some of the pettiness involved with the process of learning.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE FACILITIES?
The working conditions are cramped, the lab is a third the size it should be for the work that’s being done.
A young woman in her first job after college.
YOU’VE BEEN HERE THREE YEARS. HOW DO YOU FIND IT?
The work load is too high for the number of people. But most of the work is interesting because the doctors talk to you about the patients’ diseases.
I’m a social person and I feel isolated from society by working in a lab. I have no patient contact; I don’t readily see fruits of my labors.
I’m leaving to go into another kind of work.
WHAT OBSERVATIONS HAVE YOU MADE ON THE LAB?
A doctor will say, “That girl there in the white coat… ” So we bought name tags and wore them!
Many of the technicians are frustrated would-be doctors. At school and college they were discouraged by their teachers from becoming doctors, and yet, since they were among the few women who studied and liked science, they felt superior to other women. But the work as technicians did not placate our egos. The work is repetitive; there’s a lot of nit-picky detail [which women are supposed to do better than men].
There’s low morale and both petty and real grievances… mostly because of lost time… we’ve been out of school too long… too late to go back… and lost expectations.
THE UNION SPEAKS
WHAT OTHER BENEFITS HAVE BEEN WON BY THE UNION?
E.S.: Some of the benefits which 1199 members have won are: disability insurance, comprehensive medical and dental coverage including maternity care, free prescriptions, out-patient X-ray and lab service, a training and upgrading program, increased vacation and holidays, a strong grievance procedure, increased sick days, job security. There’s a pension for retirees.
In New York City, the union built for its members, 1199 Plaza, a housing complex at moderate prices.
WHAT ARE THE CONDITIONS WHICH MAKE A LAB RIGHT FOR UNIONIZING?
E.S.: The pay for technicians in the Boston area is $50 less per week than the pay for technicians in New York City and Philadelphia who belong to the union.
The workers in labs are without adequate fringe benefits, most have no family health coverage, no say in working conditions., If one or two technicians receive higher pay it is because they have buttered up the boss to get privileges on a person-to-person basis. There are no rights.
HOW SHOULD A RESEARCH WORKER GO ABOUT TRYING TO BRING, SAY, THE TECHNICIANS IN HIS/HER LAB INTO THE UNION?
E.S.: The research worker should join the union and begin to organize others into the union.
IS ORGANIZING TECH WORKERS IN HOSPITALS DIFFERENT FROM ORGANIZING THOSE IN UNIVERSITY LABS?
E.S.: In a hospital the technicians from all the labs should be organized together… to prepare for a vote with the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) or the State Labor Relations Board. (So far non-profit hospitals are not covered by the NLRB).
In university or hospital labs where the money comes from grants, all the technicians being made from one grant… in whatever institution they are working, should be organized together.
HOW DO YOU ANSWER THE STATEMENT THAT TECHNICIANS ARE PROFESSIONALS AND DO NOT WANT TO BE ORGANIZED?
E.S.: Professionals are also workers! The teachers of the nation finally learned this and nurses are in the process of unionizing. Teaching assistants who help with research should join the Teachers Union, College Section.
Local 1199 has a section called, “The Guild of Professional, Technical and Office Employees.” It has organized 16,000 of these people who make up an important section of the health care industry. Included in this section are: registered pharmacists, psychologists, research workers, among many categories.
HOSPITAL LABORATORY B
My part-time secretarial job at a local hospital was intended as a quiet port in the storm of unemployment, an uncomplicated perch from which to look for something more “scientific.” Instead, I am set down, a Judy Garland in the Land Oz, smack in the middle of a unionizing struggle, complete with cops, leaflets and disputation. I am at once surprised, and surprised at my own surprise — evidently some people don’t believe their own rhetoric! Anyway, this being my first work-place organizing experience, I write to share a few observations with SftP.
With Marxian predictability…
- All administrators, my supervisors, doctors are opposed to the union. Their opposition made clear ·by personal pressure and letters from the administration solidly pro-union, clericals divided, other type workers I don’t know, except lots of aids and maintenance attended the union meeting I went to.
- Union leaflets about low wages, working conditions, lack of respect paid to workers followed by hospital letter granting slight wage increase and credit union for employees—also, doctors and supervisors show more respect.
- Hospital also warns of disruptions “as happened elsewhere” if union enters, and hints at dark designs and entanglements implicit in union membership.
- Union tries to set up election with hospital administration. Hospital balks, delays. Many workers stage noon-time demonstration at chief administrator’s office (he had refused to see delegation of workers, only one worker, singly).
- In response to attempts to intimidate pro-union workers, union publishes leaflet with list of workers’ organizing rights. Leafletting continues, hospital gets mad, calls cops, security takes name of leafletting workers, union organizer gets arrested, later released.
- Attempt to get election bogs down in courts. I, an evening and week-end worker, continue to miss most of action. Get most info from departmental techs, many of whom are militant. I have taken part in some good discussions with them and some secretaries, but there is an overwhelming, built-in cultural thing not to discuss. There is a TV for rest-period watching.
I work very hard at my job here at very low pay. The pay, as in most women’s work seems to be based on the assumption that it’s augmenting some other main source of income, as it often is. The work is much harder than scientific work and less interesting, but at this time in history, probably more useful. There is a strange deja-vu feeling about unionizing—like, didn’t it all happen before, around 1880? — Visions of Walter Pigeon marching with his mates to the pit-head at 5:30 a.m., singing in Welsh. These personal aberrations aside, it’s interesting that even the threat of unionizing has brought forth concessions from the hospital that they had been saying they were too poor for. A union leaflet with a flow-chart showing money coming into and going out of the hospitals and the intercommunications with the banks and insurance companies comes to mind as a counter to the hospitals’ poor-mouthing.
In the war of the hospital letters and union leaflets, the hospital propagates its position freely via letters to all employees, sent out at will. The union has only the medium of the leaflet, which the hospital tries to block as illegal and disruptive. So much for free speech. I wonder if this inequity comes through. It’s hard to say—it seems so proper for the administrators to address their employees, while the leafletting by nature comes across as an intrusion. The hospital played up the theme of the union-as-disruption a lot at first—not so much recently. Is it too idiotic a ploy even for them to use?
Another thing I’ve noted is that many workers base their opposition on the very real history of union corruption and general post World War II co-optation by the ruling class. They know all about this, but almost nothing about the good labor struggles of the past—a tribute to the selectivity of bourgeois education. There’s a big need for labor history education.