Nate F. discusses the challenges facing AFSCME District Council 37, issues at his own worksite, and the potential benefits that the New York Health Act would bring for workers and our healthcare system.
What is your job?
I’m a social worker in the city’s public healthcare system, the NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation. I work at Harlem Hospital, on an inpatient medical unit doing “discharge planning.” That means I make sure–as best I can–that clients have the support they need to continue their recovery once they leave the hospital.
What union are you a member of?
I’m a member of Local 768, one of 52 local unions that make up District Council 37 of AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). DC37 represents 125,000 members in 1,000 job titles They work in parks, hospitals, libraries, schools, road maintenance, and other city agencies.
How long have you been a member, and what’s your involvement with the union?
I’ve been a member from the day I was hired eight and a half years ago. I became a shop steward after three years on the job. I’ve focused on helping my coworkers organize to enforce our contract and to win improvements to our pay and staffing. I also try to connect coworkers to broader struggles we face as healthcare workers (like our horrible health insurance system) and social justice concerns affecting communities of color. Last year, I was elected to Local 768’s Executive Board and as a delegate to DC37’s leadership body, but my most important involvement is still at my worksite.
What are the major issues for your union right now?
In June, the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision overturned a 40-year precedent that allowed public-sector unions to charge dues to non-members who benefit from union bargaining. DC37 could face a financial challenge if a significant portion of our coworkers drop their membership.
What is/has been the attitude of your employer toward the union?
Citywide, Mayor de Blasio has agreed to union contracts in which wages roughly keep up with inflation. But the unions have had to “pay for these raises” with complex agreements that essentially reduce the amount of money the City pays for our health benefits. So far, these cost savings initiatives haven’t dramatically changed members’ experience when they use their health insurance. We may soon reach the limits of this approach.
But my worksite suffers from the chronic underfunding of our public hospitals, which gives managers an incentive to replicate the bad practices seen in the private and for-profit healthcare industry. Personnel costs are always the largest item in hospital budgets, so managers try to save money by making us work harder. In my unit, like many others, staffing is so lean that nurses regularly have to care for too many patients at a time. And when I take a vacation, there’s no one to fill in. That doubles the workload for my colleague.
Our work can save lives, so we try to get it all done, but honestly, it often just isn’t possible. This situation forces us to make a million little decision every day to prioritize the care that is absolutely critical. Care that is needed, but less urgent, may not get done, which is frustrating both for patients and ourselves. Chronic stress leads to burnout, staff turnover, and a lower quality of care.
Neither law nor our union contracts limit the workload assigned to us, so we have to advocate for ourselves at the hospital. After six months of pressure, management has agreed to fill some vacant social work positions. If they manage to hire more workers before others leave, I’ll be impressed.
How does the union advocate for members?
As I wrote above, our contracts have mostly maintained the status quo for our members’ pay and benefits. In 2016, we won a $15 minimum wage for all city employees, which transferred about $128 million a year to 50,000 of the lowest paid workers, such as school crossing guards.
DC37 has also been vocal on some social justice issues that affect the whole working class. In recent years, we have done internal education on immigration rights, supported quite a few of the large actions on this issue, and lobbied to remove ICE from the courts. We’ve also prioritized climate justice, using our position as a trustee of ouf pension system (NYCERS) to push for divestment from all fossil fuels and investment in wind-farm production.
Are there other issues you’d like to see the union start to address?
While our negotiations may produce contracts on par with most other unions, they don’t inspire our members to demand more from our employer or society. And while the union does a fair job enforcing contracts, we could do much more to advocate for relief from the daily pressures that we face at work, especially in our grossly-underfunded hospitals.
On the social justice front, we have been too silent on the issue of police brutality, and did not advocate for the Right to Know Act. We could have demonstrated more leadership. I believe it would have been popular with a majority of our membership.
Most urgently, DC37 has not endorsed the NY Health Act. Our leadership is concerned that the bill, as written, does not address some concerns specific to our benefit plans. We are discussing these concerns with the bills’ primary sponsors. I am hopeful that these concerns will be addressed, and that we’ll eventually endorse the bill. Assuming that’s in the cards, the more important question is whether we will make the fight for single payer an organizational priority.
Winning a good single-payer law would be a game changer. It would allow us to make major advances in contract negotiations by lifting the weight of funding our healthcare benefits. It could also end the chronic funding crises in our public hospitals, allowing us to demonstrate that publically run, unionized hospitals can provide the best quality care in the country to all our patients, regardless of their class or immigration status.
As Jane McAlevey has said, organizing is about raising expectations. Of course, we need contracts that keep up with inflation, and we need to make sure our contracts are enforced. But faced with the “freeloader” problem created by Janus v. AFSCME, our union needs to fight aggressively for more ambitious goals, both related to shop floor issues and policy. In my experience, winning on shop floor issues helps members to expect more and demand more; It helps us and our coworkers develop confidence that we can win our more ambitious plans even beyond single payer!