Pinned on the basement walls of a temporary union headquarters during New York’s hospital strike last spring was a two-page, full color advertisement torn from Life magazine. It showed a gentleman of the New Leisure stretched in a hammock, drinking a pink frothy mixture that appeared to be an ice cream soda. His face reflected such ecstatic contentment that a casual observer might wonder if there weren’t perhaps a couple of jiggers of gin in the mixture. Below the ad, printed in ink on a piece of scrap paper were the words, “We want this life tool.”
Around the room on folding chairs sat a sprinkling of the aspirants to membership in the advertised affluent society; the most underpaid and poorly benefitted workers in the richest city of the richest nation of the world. They were mostly Negroes and Puerto Ricans, their ages ranging from the teens to a time at which the counting of years is superfluous, the faces beaten and drawn beyond any other category but Old. They gathered for six weeks in basement rooms and rented halls near the hospitals that employed them, fanning themselves against the heat and the boredom, rising up to shuffle into place on the picket lines, coming periodically back to strike headquarters to claim the bread and canned food that union sympathizers contributed during the seige.
The plight of these several thousand striking workers, from the ranks of the 30,000 employees who do the laundry, kitchen, maintenance, service, and laboratory work in New York’s 81 “voluntary” hospitals (supported mainly by charity) drew both sympathy and shock from most of the city’s citizens, especially union members, and the local union leaders who like to refer to New York as a “labor city.” These striking workers, organized by Local 1199 of the Retail Drug Employees Unions (an affiliate of the RWDSU) commonly averaged $34 a week, without unemployment and disability benefits, without seniority, without union representation, and in some cases, with a six-day week. Because the voluntary hospitals (the other categories are proprietary hospitals, run privately and for profit, and city and state hospitals) are non-profit institutions, supported largely by charity, they are exempt from state labor laws and also from the Taft-Hartley law. In an era when labor demands are centered more and more on the shorter week and special benefits, and blue collar workers increasingly are faced with the split-level problems of their white collar brothers, the sudden “discovery” of the forgotten hospital workers provided a shot in the arm and a common, uncontroversial cause to the recently merged New York labor council, which got behind the strikers with unanimous aid and enthusiasm. As one observer of the labor scene described the strike, “This is the most clearcut social issue since the revolt of the gladiators.”
Few people disagreed with that sentiment, and a...
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