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Ron Radosh

How ObamaCare and an Old Red Union Betrayed Its Poorest Workers

November 30th, 2010 - 3:52 pm

There is also another ironic component that has not been noticed, and hence, I am bringing this to the attention of PJM readers. The local whose members are now suffering is the descendant of the most well-known Communist-led union in the New York City area — the original Local 1199 of the Drug, Hospital and Health Care Employees, originally created as a small drugstore workers’ union by the Red labor leader Leon Davis decades ago.

Writing in the New York Times Book Review on September 24, 1989, political reporter Joe Klein (now of Time magazine), called its members “the humblest of all laborers, the bed-pan carriers, the bottle washers and laundrymen” who were “overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.” Of course, they still are in our present times. Hence back in the heyday of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, they took to the streets in a series of dramatic strikes that led to organizing success and major press coverage. Klein comments about them:

“But there was a more subtle romance at work here as well: the organizing of the hospital workers was the last dance for the generation of… tough-guy labor organizers-many of them Communists-who had helped create the C.I.O. in the 1930’s and were then purged when the Cold War began.”

Klein notes accurately that its first professional organizers, Leon Davis, Elliott Godoff and Moe Foner, were among those who survived what they called a “witch-hunt”  by, as Klein puts it, “hiding out in a small ‘progressive’ pharmacists’ local, and who represented the most benign face of a malignant ideology.” The top man, Davis, Klein notes, was fortunate to stage these strikes at a moment in New York City’s past when “the state was flush and willing to pay for the contracts he won.” Strikes would be called, hospitals would say they faced chaos and closure if demands were not met, and the state treasury would step in with cash to cover the new high bills.

Now, so many years later, New York State is even in worse shape than it was in the 1970s, when the arrangement first began to fall apart. As for the union, which then faced a major split between its original Marxist-Leninist leaders and a new group of black nationalists, Klein notes:

“Mr.Davis had constructed the union in a classic Marxist-Leninist fashion, with a strong central ‘politburo’ and a weak assembly of union delegates. He handpicked his successor, …whom he groomed for many years and expected to control after formally relinquishing his title.”

As so often happened, things did not work as the union’s top old commissar hoped. The new leader had different plans, and she moved quickly to purge the old Reds out of the leadership, and the rest of that group’s supporters. As time passed, that leader would also be replaced. One thing remained constant .. the SEIU was still on the left fringe of the union movement, and remained so as part of outgoing head Andy Stern’s SEIU, which eventually took it over. As Klein concludes his review of a book about the union, “The story of 1199 remains a metaphor…for the sad journey of American Communism, a twisted paternalism that ultimately lacked sufficient faith in the workers it sought to serve.”

So add my own conclusion to Joe Klein’s old one: Andy Stern’s SEIU, the well-known ACORN partner and most radical of the public sector trade union movement, still knows how to work for a supposedly beneficial universal health care program, which in reality means worse health care for the many and great health care for the wealthy, who can opt out of the system and buy whatever medical care they need at the highest fees possible. Promising health care for all and especially the poor, its own union moves to hurt its own poorest members, blaming the development on the very health care program they worked for and supported, and that has led health insurance premiums to skyrocket.

It is indeed another travesty in the sad journey of American radical trade unionism, brought up to date for the 21st century.

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