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Los Angeles Times Interview

Andrew Stern

Jumping Into the Health-Care Fray as the Voice of the Medical Classes

July 04, 1999|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is director of the JSM+ New Media Lab

A: In Los Angeles, we organized 74,000 workers who actually worked in 74,000 different places. In the service sector, work is spread out across the community, and that requires an entirely different model for organizing workers. Simply finding and communicating with workers, or even just finding out who their employer is, can provide the kind of challenge that you don't see in a traditional factory setting. It requires building strong alliances within existing community organizations such as churches and advocacy groups, existing organizations who know the work force and who may have helped place them in their jobs. It means developing a highly sophisticated communications system that includes a huge phone-bank operation. It means holding meetings within the community rather than at the workplace. So it's much more difficult than just handing out a leaflet at a factory gate.

Q: You also represent workers across a wide spectrum of income levels. On the one hand, you have home-care workers who are at the bottom of the pay scale. On the other, you have physicians with six-figure incomes. How does that all mesh into a single labor force?

A: All these workers actually have a number of things in common. First, they are all looking for a way to make their voice heard. Home workers, because of their economic situation, are much more inclined to look for support around wages and benefits and being able to raise a family and get a good education for their children. Doctors are much more interested that their voice be heard at the bedside around quality patient care and issues involving the practice of medicine. But in each case, though their voice may be speaking about different needs, they are unified in their desire to be heard. In fact, having such different types of workers organized within our union brings us a lot of strength.

Q: While many people might easily accept the idea of a union for building-service workers or home-health-care providers, the idea of a doctor with a union card is foreign and even abhorrent to many. Why should someone choose a physician in a union, and how will union affiliation improve doctors' ability to practice medicine?

A: Doctors are joining unions because they are concerned about being able to continue to provide capable, quality care to their patients. Doctors don't like being told that they have only 10 minutes per patient. They don't like so-called managed-care organizations telling them what procedures they can perform or what tests they can authorize. I would think that people would want to go to a doctor who is fighting for their interest and not to one who is just trying to achieve the objectives of a managed-care organization.

Q: But there are some serious problems with unions in the public mind. There is a general perception that many unions suffer from internal corruption. There is also a feeling, even among union members, that union leaders are often nonresponsive. How are you and other union leaders addressing these perceptions?

A: The union movement had a period when it represented one in every three American workers, and it was enormously successful. Then the world changed and for a long time the labor movement didn't. Our industries changed, and we became part of a global community and economy. I think the labor movement was very slow to respond. Like many corporations, it didn't respond, and because of that we suffered, and our members suffered. But now I think we're seeing a generational change in the leadership of unions, with new people bringing fresh ideas to the movement.

As to the issue of corruption, as in any organization, there is a tremendous need for financial integrity within union leadership. I think when leaders forget they are a voice for their members and that their position is a privilege and not a right, there are all kinds of negative connotations. I believe that the labor movement, just [like] any institution moving into the 21st century, is going to have to constantly think about how to stay vibrant and ahead of the times. We live in a lightning-fast world, and we can't have a lumbering, slow-moving labor movement.

Q: Another problem with the labor movement is competition between unions for workers, and this intra-union squabbling has often come at the expense of workers. How do you see unions improving the way they work with each other to eliminate these turf battles?

A: I think we are now at an enormously important time in history, when many industries are consolidating and where unions, if they are going to change our members lives, need to have expertise and focus. We're not going to be successful trying to organize hotel workers. Our expertise is in health care. I hope we are coming to understand that unions need to support each other and not compete across industries for workers.

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